Municipal Judge Term Four Years Now, Not Two

2/23/12 – The City Attorney says Beaver Dam Municipal Court Judge Ken Peters, who was elected to a two-year in 2011, was actually elected to a four-year term. Mary Ann Schacht told officials in committee this week that the term extension was the result of a little-known law change that was approved in 2009 but did not go into effect until January 2011, three months before Peters was elected to a third term. Schacht says even though the term extension was not publicized during the election, there is no cause for concern. The ballot did not list the length of the term. The law change was among dozens of provisions designed to boost professionalism, increase independence and create uniformity among Wisconsin’s 250 municipal courts, which all together handle hundreds of thousands of cases each year. In Wisconsin, municipal judges are not required to be attorneys and, except in Madison and Milwaukee, work part time. Peters says it might take a new judge two years to learn the ropes and by the time they do, they could be voted out. The outcome of municipal court cases can have a major impact on defendants, who can be ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fines or spend up to three months in jail. Another key aspect of the law gives low-income defendants more chances to avoid jail or lose their driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines. Municipal judges must offer such defendants options – including community service, payment plans or extensions –before taking more drastic steps.