Self-help law center


How the courts work

The judicial branch is one of three branches of government. It is responsible for interpreting the laws; the legislative branch makes the laws and the executive branch enforces the laws. For more information about the Wisconsin Court System, visit the resources below.

Who's who in the court system

Judge: An elected public official with authority to hear and decide cases in a court of law. Municipal court judges preside over cases originating in their own city involving only local laws and traffic offenses. Circuit court judges are trial court judges with jurisdiction over all kinds of cases. There is a circuit court in each county. Appellate judges review the records of trial court proceedings to interpret the law and correct errors made by the trial courts.

Court commissioner: A lawyer appointed by the circuit judges of a county who, as a judicial officer, exercises many of the functions of a judge, by conducting hearings and making findings and recommendations. Commissioner duties vary from county to county, but may include small claims, preliminary criminal proceedings, and other cases. Commissioners who hear family cases such as divorce, paternity and child support are sometimes referred to as family court commissioners.

Court reporter: A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court and produces a written transcript of the proceedings upon request.

Clerk of court: An elected county official who receives legal pleadings, issues subpoenas and warrants, enters judgments and collects fines, and keeps records of court proceedings.

Clerk: A member of the clerk of courts staff, who provides in-court assistance to the judge. The clerk keeps track of documents, exhibits, scheduling, and keeps an abbreviated record of court proceedings.

Bailiff: A court officer who keeps order in the courtroom and has custody of the jury. The bailiff may be from the county sheriff's department.

Judicial assistant: An administrative assistant to a judge who provides clerical support.

Interpreter: An officer of the court who interprets court proceedings between English and another language. Interpreters may work on contract with the court or as county employees.

Register in probate: A county official appointed by the circuit judges who keeps records of court proceedings in probate cases and oversees the administration of estates. Probate cases include wills, trusts, guardianships, and mental health commitment hearings. This position is similar to the clerk of court and sometimes part of the clerk of courts office.

Juvenile clerk: A county official appointed by the circuit judges who keeps records of court proceedings in juvenile cases including juvenile delinquency, juveniles in need of protective services, and CHIPS (child abuse and neglect.) This position is usually combined with the Register in Probate, but sometimes is an employee of the clerk of courts office. Not all counties have a separately appointed juvenile clerk.

Sheriff: An elected county official responsible for law enforcement and public safety. The sheriff serves complaints, subpoenas, and warrants.

Attorney: A trained and licensed advocate, counsel, or agent who handles cases in the courts or manages the legal affairs of a client. Attorneys may be in private practice, work for the government, or work for a business or nonprofit group.

Prosecutor: A trial attorney representing the government in criminal case and forfeiture cases. The prosecutor decides who and when to prosecute. Depending on the offense, cases may be prosecuted by an assistant attorney general who works for the state, by a district attorney elected at the county level, by a municipal attorney for violations of city or county ordinances, or by a corporation counsel who works for the county.

Defense attorney: An attorney who represents the defendant, usually in a criminal case. A public defender is an attorney employed by the state whose work consists primarily of defending people who cannot afford a lawyer. Defense attorneys may also be private attorneys appointed by the court or paid by the defendant.

Probation officer: A state official who supervises a criminal defendant placed on probation. The probation officer monitors the progress of a probationer and takes action if the probationer violates the conditions of release.

Guardian ad litem (GAL): An attorney appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a party or someone affected by the matter. A GAL is often appointed to represent the best interests of a child in child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, and divorce cases. A GAL may also be appointed to represent the best interests of adults and children in guardianships, protective placements, and other matters.

Coroner: An elected county official who inquires into the causes of any death which occurs under unusual circumstances.

Chief judge: A circuit court judge appointed by the supreme court to oversee the administrative activities of a judicial district and provide judicial leadership within the district.

District court administrator: A professional court administrator hired by the state to oversee the administrative, non-judicial activities of the courts in each judicial district. The DCA may be the person responsible for coordinating interpreter services within the district.

How can court staff help?

Court staff can provide information that can be helpful in the handling of your case. However, court staff cannot provide legal advice, which limits the type of information that can be given. Court staff must follow guidelines established by the Supreme Court Rule 70.41 .

Court staff shall do all of the following:
  • Provide public information contained in dockets or calendars, case files, indexes, and existing reports
  • Provide a copy of, or recite common, routinely employed state and local court rules, court procedures, and applicable fees and costs
  • Advise an individual where to find statutes and rules, without advising whether a particular statute or rule is applicable
  • Identify and provide applicable forms and written instructions without providing advice or recommendations as to any specific course of action
  • Answer questions about how to complete forms, such as where to write in particular types of information, but not questions about how the individual should phrase his or her responses on the forms
  • Define terms commonly used in court processes
  • Provide phone numbers for lawyer referral services, local attorney rosters, or other assistance services, such as Internet resources, known to the court staff
  • Provide appropriate aids and services for individuals with disabilities to the extent required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq.
Court staff may not do any of the following:
  • Provide legal advice or recommend a specific course of action for an individual
  • Apply the law to the facts of a given case, or give directions regarding how an individual should respond or behave in any aspect of the legal process
  • Recommend whether to file a petition or other pleading
  • Recommend phrasing for or specific content of pleadings
  • Fill in a form, unless required by ADA
  • Recommend specific people against whom to file petitions or other pleadings
  • Recommend specific types of claims or arguments to assert in pleadings or at trial
  • Recommend what types or amount of damages to seek or the specific individuals from whom to seek damages
  • Recommend specific questions to ask witnesses or litigants
  • Recommend specific techniques for presenting evidence in pleadings or at trial
  • Recommend which objections to raise regarding an opponent's pleadings or motions at trial or when and how to raise them
  • Recommend when or whether an individual should request or oppose an adjournment
  • Recommend when or whether an individual should settle a dispute
  • Recommend whether an individual should appeal a judge's decision
  • Interpret the meaning or implications of statutes or appellate court decisions as they might apply to an individual case
  • Perform legal research

Frequently asked questions about judges

Q. How long does a circuit court judge have to make a decision in a case?

Supreme Court Rule 70.36 dictates that a circuit court judge "shall decide each matter submitted for decision within 90 days of the date on which the matter is submitted to the judge in final form." If a decision can not be made within 90 days, the judge shall certify this in the record of the matter and notify the chief judge of the judicial administrative district. The period is then extended for one additional period of 90 days.

Q. How long does an appellate judge or court have to make a decision in a case?

There are no time guidelines for appellate decisions. Statistical reports are available on the Web from 1998 to the present. The section "Average Days to Disposition" shows the average time.

Q. How much are Wisconsin justices and judges paid?

Salaries for circuit court judges and appellate level judges can be found in the judicial branch section of the Wisconsin Blue Book. As of Jan. 4, 2022, circuit court judges earned $155,023; appellate court judges earned $164,325; and supreme court justices earned $174,185 annually.

Q. What are the requirements of judicial office?

Article VII of the Wisconsin Constitution provides that, to be eligible for the office of supreme court justice or judge, a person must be an attorney licensed to practice in Wisconsin for the 5 years immediately prior to their election or appointment. No person may serve beyond the July 31 following the day they turn 70 years old, unless assigned temporary service by the chief justice. No justice or judge shall hold any other office of public trust, except a judicial office, during their elected term.

Q. What rules govern judges?

Supreme Court Rule 60, Code of Judicial Conduct

Q. Can I e-mail or contact a judge involved in my case?

Ex parte communication, communication by or for one party in the case, is prohibited except as permitted by law and for scheduling purposes. See Supreme Court Rule 20:3.3 and 60.04 for more information.

Q. Where can I complain about a judge?

The Wisconsin Judicial Commission investigates allegations of judicial misconduct. They provide an online complaint form.