- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The board that investigates potential violations of crime victims’ rights can’t take any action against judges, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a scathing opinion reinforcing the separation of power between the executive and judicial branches.

Justice Rebecca Bradley, writing for the majority, accused the Legislature of trampling 200-plus years of legal doctrine when it created an entity that can reprimand and discipline Wisconsin judges.

“Encroachment on judicial power degrades the judicial independence that serves as a bulwark protecting the people against tyranny,” Bradley wrote. “Any student of American government can recite the fundamental principle that both our state and the federal Republic separate governmental powers between independent legislative, executive, and judicial branches.”

The ruling stems from a 2011 sexual assault case in Eau Claire County. The defendant was convicted in January 2012 but Judge William Gabler chose to delay his sentencing until that August.

According to court documents, Gabler explained that he made the move because the defendant faced trial in another sexual assault and sending him to prison would make it difficult for his attorney to communicate with him. The judge also felt that the outcome of the second trial could influence his sentencing decision in the January conviction.

The victim in the first case filed a complaint to the Crime Victims Rights Board alleging Gabler violated her right to a speedy disposition of her case.

The Wisconsin Constitution as well as state statutes guarantee crime victims a host of rights, including the right to privacy, the right to be treated with dignity, the right to attend court proceedings and the right to timely disposition of their cases. Under the statues, the victims board is charged with investigating violations of victim rights. It has the power to issue reprimands and collect civil forfeitures, including against judges.

The board issued a report in 2013 that concluded the board has jurisdiction over Gabler because he was a public employee and Gabler had violated the victim’s constitutional and statutory rights to timely disposition of her case. The board added that the delay caused the victim extreme anxiety because the defendant remained free.

Eau Claire County Circuit Judge James Duvall reversed the board’s decision and ordered it to dismiss the complaint against Gabler. The board appealed and the Supreme Court granted Gabler’s request to take the case directly without it going through an appellate court first.

The justices ruled 5-1 that the Legislature can’t burden or interfere with the judicial branch. Only the Supreme Court can discipline judges, Bradley wrote. Any other interpretation would allow panels like the victims board to essentially veto judges’ decisions and drive judges to make rulings to please the other branches to avoid a public rebuke or civil forfeitures, she wrote.

Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote in dissent that the ruling is overzealous and translates to a lack of respect and concern from crime victims as well as the executive and legislative branches.

Johnny Koremenos, a spokesman for the state Department of Justice, which represented the board, called the decision disappointing. He said the agency is still reviewing the ruling’s impact on victims.

The decision comes as Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, GOP lawmakers and crime victim advocates are pushing to add another amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution expanding victim rights further, including the rights to have information that could be used to locate them sealed, to be heard in plea, parole and expungement proceedings and to refuse to participate in depositions with defense attorneys in criminal cases.

Brian Reisinger, a spokesman for Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin, a group promoting the amendment, said the group is reviewing the ruling’s impact and will keep working with lawmakers and others to “make any changes necessary to our state Constitution to give victims the rights they deserve.”

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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