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Separation of Powers Doctrine – Prosecutorial Veto and § 973.195, TIS Sentence Adjustment

State v. David S. Stenklyft, 2005 WI 71, on bypass
For Stenklyft: Suzanne L. Hagopian, SPD, Madison Appellate

Issue/Holding: The prosecutorial veto written into the TIS sentence-adjustment provision, § 973.195, is unconstitutional:

¶83 … “[S]hall” is interpreted as directory, thereby giving a circuit court discretion to accept or reject an objection from a district attorney on a petition for sentence adjustment under Wis. Stat. § 973.195. …

¶84 We conclude that the judicial power is compromised when the district attorney is given the unilateral power to end a circuit court’s consideration of an inmate’s petition for sentence adjustment. A district attorney’s exercise of a core judicial function is barred by the separation of powers doctrine. [17]

¶85 Wisconsin Stat. § 973.195(1r)(c) is unconstitutional if read to grant a district attorney veto power over a petition for sentence adjustment. A district attorney’s veto power invades the exclusive core constitutional power of the judiciary to impose a criminal penalty. It empowers an executive branch officer to direct a court decision on the merits of a case, thereby violating the doctrine of separation of powers under the state constitution. [18]

¶86 Even if we were to conclude that the statute does not invade the exclusive core constitutional powers of the judiciary, the elimination of a circuit court’s power to decide an inmate’s petition without the approval of the district attorney is an impermissible burden and substantial interference with the judicial branch’s authority. [19] The statute interferes with the impartial administration of justice by delegating judicial power to one of the parties in the litigation.

¶105 Because deciding the merits of a case is the essence of a court’s function, and because the statute delegates to a district attorney the power to mandate the denial of a petition in each case, we conclude that the legislation in question is an unconstitutional violation of the doctrine of separation of powers.

The holdings are contained in two separate, 4-vote concurrence/dissents; see ¶82. The misleadingly referred-to “lead opinion” – a mere 80 ¶¶ – is written as if it were the majority, replete with “we hold” and “we conclude” but it garners only 3 votes. In reality, it is not the lead opinion, or the plurality, or anything other than, quite simply, the dissent.

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