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Circuit Courts are the primary trial courts in Wisconsinmarker, United Statesmarker. They hear and decide cases involving a wide variety of topics, including contracts, personal injury, family law, children in need of protection and/or services, juvenile delinquency, probate, traffic, small claims, landlord-tenant issues, and criminal law.

Power to Decide Cases

The circuit court may hear a case if the court has authority to decide the issues at stake in the case (subject matter jurisdiction) and if the court has authority to bring a defendant into court and enforce a judgment against the defendant (personal jurisdiction). The court's subject matter jurisdiction is conferred be the Wisconsin Constitution and is quite broad. The legislature may not by statute limit the nature or type of case that the courts may hear. In comparison, under the United States Constitution, the United States Congress may limit the type of cases that federal trial courts may hear.

The court has personal jurisdiction in a civil case if the defendant is present in the state or has sufficient contacts with the state and if the pleadings are served on the defendant. State statutes spell out what constitutes sufficient contact, such as business dealings in the state, ownership of property in Wisconsin that is at issue in a case, and causing injury to another while in Wisconsin.

The determination of personal jurisdiction in a civil case is driven by several policy considerations. As a matter of fairness, a defendant should not have to and could not reasonably have anticipated the suit. In addition, a state court should not assert authority over matters that more appropriately belong in another state or in the federal courts.

The circuit court has personal jurisdiction over a defendant in a criminal case if the defendant violates a Wisconsin law while in Wisconsin. Wisconsin courts also have personal jurisdiction over a defendant who commits an act while out of state that contributes to a crime, the consequences of which occur in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Supreme Courtmarker recently ruled that Wisconsin courts have personal jurisdiction over a defendant who commits an act in Wisconsin manifesting an intent to kill, even though the murder takes place in another state.

Limits on exercise of power to decide cases

There are, however, limits on what cases the circuit courts will hear. They will not hear a case if the parties lack standing, or if the case is moot or is not ripe. Additionally, the circuit court will not hear a case in which it lacks competency. State law distinguishes between the court's jurisdiction (power to hear a case) and its competency (ability to arrive at a valid judgment in a case). A court lacks competency if certain statutory requirements are not satisfied, for example, time limits for filing suit, or requirements as to which circuit should decide a case.

In addition, the courts are constrained from taking action that will encroach on the powers of the legislative or executive branches. Under the separation of powers doctrine, no branch of government may exercise a power of government assigned exclusively to another branch. The purpose of separating powers among the branches of government is to avoid concentration of governmental power in the hands of a new and to give the various branches the ability to check actions by the other branches.

In reviewing the validity of state laws, the courts are limited to determining whether the law violates any provision of the constitution. The courts may invalidate a law that violates individual rights, such as the right to equal protection or due process, or a law that is not enacted according to the process established in the constitution, for example, a bill that was not passed by a majority of the members of each house of the Wisconsin State Legislature. However, a court may not invalidate a law because the court finds that the legislature's method for addressing a problem was not the most efficient. Nor may the court substitute its determination of what is in the public interest for the determination of the legislature.

While the separation of powers doctrine limits the ability of the courts to act, it also protects the courts from encroachment by the legislature of governor. The Wisconsin Supreme Court established its judicial power in the three-branch system soon after Wisconsin became a state by deciding Bashford v. Barstow (1856), an election case that resulted in the ouster of an incumbent governor.

Structure of the circuit courts

The circuit court system is composed of 69 circuits. Sixty-six of the circuits serve a single county and three circuits each serve two counties (Buffalomarker/Pepinmarker, Florencemarker/Forestmarker, and Shawanomarker/Menomineemarker). Thirty-nine of the 69 circuits consist of more than one branch, for a total of 241 circuit court branches, each with one judge. The Milwaukee Countymarker circuit has the greatest number of branches, 47.

The circuit courts are organized into 10 geographical administrative districts, each led by a management team that includes a chief judge selected by the Supreme Court from all the circuit court judges in the district, a deputy chief judge and a district court administrator, who is a full-time professional. With the exception of Milwaukee County, where the chief judge is a full-time administrator, chief judges and their deputies maintain caseloads in addition to the administrative work. The management teams administer and increasingly complex system requiring the uniform application of justice while accommodating and respecting appropriate local variance. They assign judges and court reporters; equalize the flow of cases; establish polices, plans, and rules; supervise finances; work closely with county boards on security, facility, and staffing issues, and more. The chief judges and district court administration meet regularly with the director of state courts to discuss current issues and to advise the Supreme court and the director on matters of statewide concern.

Commencing a Civil Case

Civil cases start the same way regardless of the issues or parties involved and regardless of whether the case ultimately goes to trial. A case begins with pleadings, in which the parties state basic claims and responses. The parties then have an opportunity to investigate the claims and gather evidence through a process called discovery. The court generally has little direct involvement in a case until shortly before trial, though the court is available to resolve preliminary matters and disputes.


The plaintiff starts a civil case by filing a summons, and generally a complaint, with the clerk of circuit court and paying a filing fee. A summons provides the defendant notice that a suit has been filed against him or her and notifies the defendant that he or she must answer the complaint. The complaint sets forth the plaintiff’s allegations against the defendant. It must contain a short and plain statement of the plaintiff’s claim, identify the events out of which the claim arises, and demand relief to satisfy the plaintiff’s claim. The plaintiff must serve an authenticated copy of the summons and complaint on the defendant. The favored method for serving the defendant is to personally hand a copy of the summons to him or her. Alternatively, the server may hand the summons to another responsible adult at the defendant’s residence or, in some cases, it is sufficient for the plaintiff to publish the summons in a newspaper and send it to the defendant’s address. Any adult who is not a party to the lawsuit may serve the summons. The person who serves the summons must sign the summons at the time of service and note the date, time, place, and manner of service and upon whom the summons is served. The plaintiff then files proof of service with the court.

A plaintiff must commence a suit by serving the defendant with a summons within a certain time period established by a statute of limitation, or lose the right to sue. Statutes of limitation differ according to the type of suit. For example, a suit for breach of a sales contract must be commenced within six years; a suit for medical malpractice must be commenced within three years of the injury or within one year of discovery of the injury; and a suit to collect child support must be commenced within 20 years after the youngest child for whom support is due turns 18.

The defendant responds to the plaintiff’s allegations in a document called an answer, in which the defendant must admit or deny an allegation or state that he or she does not know if the allegation is true, in which case the allegation is taken as denied. The defendant may also raise affirmative defenses (defenses that defeat the plaintiff’s claims even if the plaintiff’s allegations are true), for example, that the time period for filing the suit has expired, that the service of the summons and complaint was invalid, or that the complaint has already been settled in previous litigation. The defendant may also file a counterclaim against the plaintiff, or a cross-claim against a fellow defendant.

The complaint and the answer together constitute the "pleadings" in a case. The purpose of the pleadings is to provide notice of the claims and defenses. The issues of the case generally are not narrowed until later in the proceedings.


After an action is commenced, the parties begin discovery, which is intended to provide the parties mutual knowledge of facts relevant to a case before trial so that the trial is limited to resolving disputed facts and issues. Discovery also allows the parties to formulate and narrow the issues for trial and obtain and preserve evidence. A recipient of a discovery request generally must provide the information or material requested unless it is readily available from another source or is privileged. The scope of permitted discovery in a civil case is quite broad. A party may use discovery to obtain material that will be inadmissible as evidence at trial as long as the material is reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. Methods of discovery include depositions (recorded interviews with witnesses under oath), interrogatories (written questions), requests for production of documents or things, medical examinations, and requests for admissions.

Ideally and usually, discovery takes place without direct involvement by the court. Except for medical examinations and inspection of medical records, discovery requests need not be authorized by the court. The recipient of a discovery request may seek a protective order denying certain discovery or limiting its scope if the discovery requested will cause annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense, or will inquire into privileged or irrelevant matters, and the party requesting discovery may request that the court intervene and order compliance.

Pretrial activities in court

After the pleadings are filed, the court may hold a scheduling conference with the parties and issue a scheduling order to manage the progress of the case. The scheduling order generally assigns dates for filing motions, amending pleadings, completing discovery, pretrial conferences between the judge and parties, and for trial. Some judges also use the scheduling conference to advise the parties to attempt to settle the case without going to trial.

In civil cases, parties often file a variety of pretrial motions with the court seeking court orders affecting the trial. For example, a defendant may seek dismissal of a whole case or certain issues in the case because the plaintiff has not stated a valid claim. Or, a party may seek an order compelling the opposing party to comply with a discovery request or a ruling on admissibility of certain pieces of evidence at trial. If the court requires additional information before ruling on a motion, the court may hold a hearing and may direct the parties to submit briefs, written materials that state the facts and present each side’s position.

The courts resolve motions by order, often directing the prevailing party to prepare the order and submit it to the judge for his or her signature. The resolution of pretrial motions often dictates the future of a case. If a party wins a pretrial motion for summary judgment, the case is dismissed. Sometimes a party who loses important pretrial motions is more likely to agree to a settlement. A settlement must be accepted by a judge. Judges usually accept settlement agreements in civil cases with minimal review, although they look more closely at settlement agreements in divorce cases. If the parties do not settle, the case proceeds to trial.

Commencing a Criminal Case

Only the state may bring a criminal case. Generally a prosecutor starts a criminal case by filing a complaint. The court is directly involved in a criminal case from the beginning to protect the rights of the defendant. Parties have a right to discovery in a criminal case, but discovery is not as extensive in a criminal case as in a civil case because the state must have completed most of its investigation before bringing criminal charges.

The Criminal Complaint

Most criminal cases are started when a prosecutor, either a district attorney (who represents a county) or the attorney general (who represents the state), files a complaint with the court. The complaint states the crime charged, names the defendant, and gives the date, approximate time, and location of the crime. In a complaint, the district attorney also presents sufficient facts to show why the defendant is being charged, identifies the source of the information contained in the complaint, and provides reasons why the source should be believed.

Prosecution of most crimes must be commenced within a certain time period that is established by a statute of limitation. The state generally has six years to commence prosecution of a felony (a crime for which a person may be sentenced to one year or more in prison) and three years for a misdemeanor (a crime for which the maximum penalty is a year in jail). However, there is no time limit for the prosecution of homicide. The main purpose of time limits is to ensure that criminal cases are tried while the evidence is still available and witnesses’ memories are fresh. A case is commenced when a warrant, summons, or indictment is issued or an information is filed.

Pretrial court appearances

The defendant’s first court date is called the initial appearance. The court informs the defendant of the charges filed against him or her and gives the defendant a copy of the complaint. The court also informs the defendant of his or her right to have an attorney and that if the defendant is indigent and requests counsel, the court will appoint an attorney. If the defendant is in custody, the court determines whether to release the defendant on bail, and if the defendant is released, imposes conditions for bail. In a misdemeanor case, the court may set the trial date at the initial appearance. The next court action in a misdemeanor case is the arraignment. Further steps are required in a felony case. At the initial appearance, the court informs a felony defendant that he or she is entitled to a preliminary examination before the criminal case may go forward.

The purpose of a preliminary examination is to determine in a felony case whether the district attorney can show probable cause to believe that the defendant committed a felony. If not, the court must dismiss the felony complaint. At the preliminary examination the district attorney and defendant may call witnesses and present evidence. If the court determines that the district attorney has shown probable cause or if the defendant waives his or her right to a preliminary examination, the case goes forward. The prosecutor files a pleading called an “information,” which informs the court of the crime with which the defendant is charged and states the date and place of the crime.An arraignment is held in both misdemeanor and felony cases. At the arraignment, the complaint or information is read out loud unless the defendant waives reading, and in a felony case the district attorney gives the defendant a copy of the information. The court then asks the defendant to submit a plea. The defendant may plead “guilty”, “no contest”, “not guilty”, or “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect”. A plea of no contest has the same effect in a criminal case as a guilty plea, except it cannot be used as an admission of criminal action in a civil case. The defendant may not enter a plea of no contest without approval from the court. If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, the court sentences the defendant or places the defendant on probation. If the defendant pleads not guilty or not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, the case proceeds to trial.

Grand jury and John Doe proceedings

Although the vast majority of criminal cases in Wisconsin are begun by a district attorney filing a criminal complaint, some cases are commenced as the result of a grand jury or John Doe investigation. Grand jury and John Doe investigations are secret proceedings for which witnesses may be subpoenaed. Grand jury and John Doe proceedings are generally used when investigators need to take testimony under oath or compel a witness to testify in order to gather sufficient evidence to issue a criminal complaint.

A judge, usually upon the request of a district attorney, may assemble a grand jury to investigate suspected criminal activity. A grand jury consists of 17 people selected for jury service. The grand jury may request that the prosecutor subpoena and examine witnesses. Upon completing an investigation, a grand jury may by the vote of at least 14 members return an indictment, which is a written accusation that a person committed a crime. If the grand jury returns an indictment, the court issues a summons or warrant for the defendant.

A judge initiates a John Doe proceeding upon receiving a complaint about criminal activity from any person, including the district attorney. The judge must question the person who makes the complaint under oath and may subpoena and examine other witnesses (usually with the assistance of the district attorney). If the judge finds probable cause to believe that a person has committed a crime, a written complaint is filed and the judge issues a warrant for the arrest of the defendant named in the complaint.


Discovery in a criminal case is generally less extensive than in a civil case. Discovery allows the parties to obtain certain information known by the opposing party. Upon request, the prosecution and defense must provide a list of witnesses it intends to call at trial, as well as statements of the witnesses, reports of expert witnesses, and any known criminal record of a witness. The parties must also disclose any physical evidence they intend to introduce at trial. A party may obtain a court order allowing scientific testing of evidence held by the opposing party. The prosecution must disclose statements made by the defendant that pertain to the crime or that the prosecution intends to introduce at trial. The prosecution is obligated to disclose exculpatory evidence (evidence that might weigh in the defendant’s favor) to the defendant even if the defendant does not specifically request the information or material.

Pretrial motions and plea bargains

Parties in a criminal case often file pretrial motions. Common motions include motions to exclude physical evidence, a defendant’s confession, or an eyewitness identification of the defendant. The court may require the attorneys to submit briefs on the motions, but briefing is less common on pretrial motions in criminal cases than civil cases.

Most criminal cases do not go to trial. Instead the prosecution and defense negotiate a settlement. The parties may agree upon the crimes to which a defendant will plead guilty and a sentence recommendation, or may only agree on the plea. The judge must review the agreement on the plea before accepting it to ensure that there is sufficient reason to believe that the defendant is guilty of the crime. If the parties agree on a sentence recommendation, the judge must review it to determine if it is appropriate. The judge is not bound by the sentence agreement.

Trial of a Civil or Criminal Case

The proceedings in a trial of a civil or criminal case are similar. Both may be to a jury or judge. Both start with opening statements, proceed to presentation of evidence followed by closing statements, and culminate with a decision. Depending on the result of the trial, a civil case may end with the awarding of damages and a criminal trial may end with sentencing. During the trial, the role of the judge is similar – determining the admissibility of evidence, guiding the jury, if there is one, and refereeing the actions of the attorneys.



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