Pubdate: Sat, 24 Sep 2011 Source: Beloit Daily News, The (WI) Copyright: 2011 The Greater Beloit Publishing Company Contact: http://www.beloitdailynews.com/forms/letters.php Website: http://www.beloitdailynews.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1637 Author: Kevin Murphy For the Daily News WISCONSIN SUPREME COURT EYES BELOIT CASE MADISON - The Wisconsin Supreme Court has accepted a Beloit man's challenge to the authority of court commissioners to issue search warrants and other judicial functions. Parties on both sides agree that the decision will have a huge impact on the functioning of the state's court system. Beloit Police searched Douglas M. Williams' Shopiere Road residence in 2008 after obtaining a search warrant from Rock County Court Commissioner Stephen Meyer. Police found marijuana plants and growing equipment. Williams, 52, was charged with three marijuana offenses but his attorney, Jonas Benarek, contested Meyer's authority to issue the warrant. Bednark argued that issuing a search warrant is a judicial function and commissioners, who preside over some criminal proceedings, conduct probate matters and officiate at weddings, aren't granted judicial powers by the state constitution. Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley dismissed the motion and after pleading no contest Williams was sentenced in 2010 to six months in jail, which Daley stayed pending appeal. The District 4 Court of Appeals asked the state's high court to directly take the case since a decision would have enormous impact statewide on the public and judiciary. In a brief to the appeals court Bednarek wrote that court commissioners were granted administrative functions, but the right to issue a search warrant is a core constitutional protection individuals enjoy and the Legislature can't delegate. "Court Commissioners are not elected, therefore they lack the most basic check on their authority that is in place for circuit court, or even municipal court judges. Furthermore...they are also not subject to the same oversight and disciplinary procedures as judges. To grant unelected and less stringently regulated officials such profound power over some of the most carefully guarded protections offered by the Constitution is truly remarkable and should not be made lightly. Yet, that is exactly what the State is seeking to do," Bednarek wrote. In its appeal briefs, the state argued that the issuing of a search warrant isn't an exercise of judicial power that needs to be conferred by the Constitution. Also, the authority to issue a warrant isn't exclusive to a circuit judge. In an earlier decision, the Wisconsin Supreme recognized legislatures in other states have granted authority to municipal clerks and other officers to issue search warrants. In 1977, the Wisconsin Legislature reorganized the court system eliminating county courts and establishing circuit courts and municipal courts. The state argued that 1977 law authorized court commissioners to issue search warrants. Rock County Assistant District Attorney Gerald Urbik, who prosecuted the Williams case, said if Williams prevails it would be a "huge disruption of court services... in Rock County and in every county in the state." "It's been a generally accepted practice and viewed by most as an obvious principal of long standing that our court commissioners perform these functions...Without them the Legislature would have to double the number of judges statewide in order to take on the additional work," he said. While court commissioners don't preside over plea and sentencing hearings, they have similar qualifications and educational requirements as circuit judges and don't get hired unless they pass a screening process, he said. Bednarek said the state claims that if court commissioners can't sign warrants it puts suspicion on other functions they do on a daily basis. Whether or not that's the case, the vast majority of their jobs aren't signing warrants, which Bednarek maintains is one of the most fundamental duties of a circuit judge. "Giving police the right to search your house is one of the most discretionary jobs judges have, that's what we elect them to do, and to say they can hand that off to an unelected official is an offense to the citizenry and the Constitution," he said in a phone interview. The court hasn't set a date when it will hear arguments in the case, which was one of eight they announced Friday they were making part of the 2011-12 term. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.