This is a guest post by Katie York, head of the SPD’s Appellate Division.
The circuit court sanctioned Shegonee $500 for accepting a new plea offer 3 days prior to her scheduled jury trial. The state made the offer after the court-imposed deadline for resolving the case. The court of appeals recognized the circuit court’s understandable concern about time pressures, number of cases, and the need for circuit courts to keep cases moving in a timely manner. However, it concluded the sanction imposed on Shegonee was “just outside the bounds of any authority for such a sanction” (¶¶1, 18) and thus reversed the sanction order.
Although the circuit court did not refer to specific authority when imposing the sanction, its final pretrial conference order referred to Wis. Stat. §§ 802.10(7), 805.03, and 814.51. (¶3). None of these statutes support the sanction order.
First, as the state conceded, § 814.51 could not justify the sanction because it authorizes a sanction when a jury demand is withdrawn “within 2 business days prior to the time set by the court for the commencement of trial.” Here, the jury demand was withdrawn 3 days prior to trial. (¶9).
Second, the state made no developed argument that § 802.10(7) justified the sanction. The court noted the state’s argument that Monroe County Circuit Court Rule 12.045 applies also failed because that provision applies to “attorneys or pro se defendants.” Shegonee was represented, not pro se. (¶10 & n.3).
Finally, the court concluded § 805.03 did not authorize a sanction in this case. It states in pertinent part:
For failure of any claimant to prosecute or for failure of any party to comply with the statutes governing procedure in civil actions or to obey any order of court, the court in which the action is pending may make such orders in regard to the failure as are just…
The issue was whether Shegonee failed “to obey” “any order of [the] court,” and if so, were sanctions “just.” In discussing the court-imposed deadline, the circuit court mentioned sanctions to Shegonee, but did not tell her that she could be sanctioned if the deadline was not met. And, the court’s order about the deadline stated “Failure by either attorney to follow this order may result in motions being denied or sanctions being imposed.” Shegonee was not informed that she was the subject of the order or could be personally sanctioned for failing to comply with the court-imposed deadline. That, alone, was sufficient to reverse the sanction order. (¶¶11-14).
The court of appeals made two additional points. First, it noted that the circuit court took the attorneys “to task” for failing to meet the deadline. The circuit court also stated “I’m unclear whether Ms. Shegonee had full understanding of this deadline or not.” These statements could not be reconciled with the sanction imposed. (¶15). (The court of appeals also made it clear that it was not determining whether defense counsel or the prosecutor violated the order. (¶15 n.5).)
Second, the court of appeals found “untenable” the circuit court’s determination that the new offer was “substantially largely similar” to the previous offer. (¶17). Although there were similarities, there were also “clear and definite differences that would make a real difference in the life of Shegonee depending on which one she decided to accept.” (¶16).