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Truancy — jurisdiction of court; judicial bias

City of Appleton v. Kylie M. Johnson, 2012AP1922, District 3, 2/12/13; court of appeals decision (1-judge, ineligible for publication); case activity

Jurisdiction of court – defects in truancy citation

Defects in an habitual truancy citation did not prevent court from obtaining personal jurisdiction over Johnson before it entered default judgment. She did not appear at the first hearing on the citation, so the court entered a default judgment against her; at the same hearing, however, she was summoned to appear at a future hearing, and when she appeared at the second hearing she was advised of the default judgment. Thus:

¶10      …[W]e conclude that, irrespective of any defects in the citation, Johnson submitted to the court’s jurisdiction by appearing in person without objection at the next hearing.  See Artis-Wergin v. Artis-Wergin, 151 Wis. 2d 445, 452, 444 N.W.2d 750 (Ct. App. 1989).  Although we recognize that personal jurisdiction must exist at the time of entry of judgment, see Heaston v. Austin, 47 Wis. 2d 67, 74-75, 176 N.W.2d 309 (1970), the court appears to have modified its judgment at the hearing where Johnson did appear.  Specifically, the court added a community service requirement in lieu of the forfeiture, and, at subsequent hearings, the court faulted Johnson for failing to complete these required hours.  Because the court had personal jurisdiction over Johnson, the court’s judgment is not void.

Johnson also argued the citation’s defects deprived the court of competency, but she forfeited that claim by not raising that issue in the circuit court. (¶9). Village of Trempealeau v. Mikrut, 2004 WI 79, ¶38, 273 Wis. 2d 76, 681 N.W.2d 190. Jurisdiction, on the other hand, may be raised for the first time on appeal because a judgment entered without jurisdiction is void, and “[a] void judgment cannot be validated by consent, ratification, waiver, or estoppel.”  Neylan v. Vorwald, 124 Wis. 2d 85, 97, 368 N.W.2d 648 (1985). (¶9).

Judicial bias

The judge was objectively biased because the record creates the appearance he prejudged the contempt hearing. At the first hearing Johnson attended the court told her that if she violated any of its orders she “could be found, and will be found if the City makes a motion, in contempt of Court.” (¶3). More striking still, at the next hearing, after the City informed the court that it would be filing a contempt motion, the court reviewed  the school records that formed the basis of the subsequent contempt motion and engaged Johnson in a colloquy about why she had missed school. (¶¶4, 14). This record establishes objective bias under State v. Goodson, 2009 WI App 107, 320 Wis. 2d 166, 771 N.W.2d 385:

¶17      …[T]he court considered Johnson’s attendance records and demanded to know why she failed to attend school before any contempt motion was even filed. We conclude a reasonable person would interpret the court’s actions and statements to mean that the court had already decided Johnson violated its order before the contempt hearing. This appearance of partiality reveals a great risk that the court actually did prejudge the contempt hearing; therefore, we conclude the court was objectively biased and the contempt order must be vacated. See Dylan S., 339 Wis. 2d 442, ¶30.

The court of appeals also reaches an issue that, given its reversal of the contempt order due to bias, it need not address. Specifically, the court was “troubled” by the imposition of imprisonment as a remedial sanction. First, the judge’s comments in imposing the sanction implied a punitive intent that is “entirely improper.” (¶¶19-20). Christensen v. Sullivan, 2009 WI 87, ¶55, 320 Wis. 2d 76, 768 N.W.2d 798 (remedial sanctions are “not designed to punish the contemnor, vindicate the court’s authority, or benefit the public” but only to force the contemnor into compliance with the court’s order). Further, the court imposed a purge condition without ensuring that Johnson would in fact be able to satisfy that condition, and a purge condition must be solely within the contemnor’s control. State ex rel. N.A. v. G.S., 156 Wis. 2d 338, 343, 456 N.W.2d 867 (Ct. App. 1990) (purge condition that relied on the affirmative action of another was improper). “Here, the court failed to determine that Johnson herself would be able to complete the purge condition, and Johnson unfortunately ended up serving thirty days of jail.” (¶22).

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