JANESVILLE - Rock County Circuit Court Judge Michael Fitzpatrick is preparing to ascend to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals next month, and the judge took time Wednesday to look back on his work in Rock County.
Fitzpatrick will join four other judges in the District 4 branch of the appeals court on Aug. 1. Jeff Kuglitsch, Rock County Corporate Counsel, recently was appointed to fill out Fitzgerald's term as Rock County judge.
After being sworn in on Aug. 3, Fitzpatrick hopes to familiarize himself with his new role as an appellate court judge, a position that carries greater responsibility since some appellate court decisions can have statewide significance.
"I've enjoyed serving the citizens of Rock County and I look forward to serving them on a larger basis in Madison," Fitzpatrick said.
The long-time litigator has practiced law for over 30 years, and came to Janesville after working privately at Brennan Steil and Basting S.C. prior to sitting on the bench. In 2008, he joined the circuit court ranks and decided to run for the appeals court seat after serving with appellate judges through a now-expired county program around 2010.
"Doing that helped me be a better circuit court judge, because you could see the importance of a circuit court judge making a clear record as to why they are making a decision, what facts they rely on, what laws they rely on," Fitzpatrick said. "It lends to better understanding the case at the appellate level."
The avid runner, who earned his law degree from Drake University, said he's always trying to learn from cases, noting his role as an appellate court judge will only further his legal knowledge.
Outside of his heavy circuit court case load, Fitzpatrick teaches evidence-related classes at the Wisconsin Judicial College and prepares annual reviews of civil law findings for the college's conference with 300 former and current judges.
"When I started out, I learned an awful lot from going to those judges seminars and so you want to give back and when you get more experience, take your turn," Fitzpatrick said. "I learn an enormous amount teaching because when you get up in front of everyone, you're talking about all the important case law from that last year. You have to know what you're talking about."
In the court of appeals, judges defer all facts found in cases being appealed to what was ruled in circuit court. Where Fitzpatrick's and the other judges roles will come in will be examining what laws were referenced in a case and taking a new look at all legal issues cited in a case.
He said the resources available to him at the state level, including staff attorneys and law clerks, will allow him to conduct in-depth research on specific issues. As a circuit court judge, he had to do all research by himself.
"We will be able to take a deeper look at things," Fitzpatrick added.
In a typical year, the court of appeals rules on around 2,500 cases, while the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules on around 50 cases annually. Panels of three appellate judges will be randomly assigned to cases, culminating with one judge issuing the final opinion after changes have been agreed upon by the other judges.
Fitzpatrick said it's too early to consider a seat on the state's supreme court, and he thanked all of his supporters in his 2016 unopposed campaign. Last fall, Fitzpatrick netted over 300 endorsements from various judges and legal experts in the state, including the current District 4 judges.
"I had some people suggesting I run in the current election and I said no because it would be disrespectful to the court of appeals and supreme court and all the people who supported me before I even start to run," he added. "I don't know what the future might bring."
The judge has been married to Sharon Fitzpatrick for 36 years. They live in Janesville and have no plans of leaving Rock County.