Courts Structure

Wisconsin has a system of courts which is designed to cover matters concerning local ordinances, state laws, and the state constitution.

Circuit court is the level most people are familiar with.  Every county in the state has at least one circuit court, and larger counties may have several.  Circuit Courts are the “entry level” courts where nearly all cases are first heard.  They handle both civil and criminal cases that involve state law or the state constitution. Circuit court judges are elected and serve six-year terms.  The governor has the power to appoint a circuit judge to replace one who has retired or left the bench for some other reason, but the appointed judge must then run in the next judicial election.

The Appeals court is the next level “up” from the circuit court.  The appeals court hears appeals from litigants who are not happy with the outcome of proceedings in circuit court.  There are four appellate districts with 16 appellate judges in Wisconsin.  Appellate judges serve six-year terms, and are elected or appointed by the governor under the same circumstances as judges who leave circuit court.

The highest court in the state is the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which generally handles only appeals from decisions of the Appeals court.  The Supreme Court is the “court of last resort” on matters of state law and the state constitution.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court is covered in more depth in another section of the WBA Newsroom.

In addition, there are over 200 municipal courts in Wisconsin, set up to handle ordinance violations and other minor infractions.  A municipal court judge does not have to be a lawyer.  There is a complete and current list of all the municipal court judges in the state, on the Wisconsin Courts website.  Only Madison and Milwaukee have full-time municipal courts.  The other municipal courts in other communities have sessions on their own schedule.

In Wisconsin, no matter what level of court, the proceedings and records are almost always open to the public.  To close court proceedings, a judge must conduct a public hearing and provide a strong reason based on specific findings of fact.  To learn more about our state’s open court, meetings, and records law, consult the Legal Section of the WBA Newsroom.

A quick way to learn about the Wisconsin Court system is to log on to their website.  Here you will find a number of resources to help you understand the structure of courts in Wisconsin, a list of all the judges in the state, a complete municipal court directory, and a tab called “educational resources”, which is designed for classroom teachers, but has great features useful to reporters in getting to know how the court system works.