Written by Katie Rosenberg
“All rise,” the bailiff said as I walked into the Marathon County Branch Five courtroom from a secret door behind the Judge’s desk. Stunned, I turned around and ran right into Judge Michael Moran, who was robed up and ready for Monday afternoon’s intake.
As a County Board Supervisor, I had just spent the last hour asking Judge Moran about his view of the justice system, and now I was hoping to watch him “in action.” But before I go on with that, let me set the stage a bit first…
I’m sure you’ve read about the enormous toll the opioid crisis is taking on almost every social system here in Marathon County:
- There are twice as many prisoners as our jail has capacity for.
- There are months-long waiting lists for intensive drug treatment programs.
- Social Services agents have more cases than they’ve ever had.
- And then there’s the court system…
Marathon County is looking to add a sixth court — a Drug Court — to get through our burgeoning caseload. According to Judge Moran:
“Meth is driving this county’s resources, and we have not found any containment with meth. We could fill our jail and we would still have these problems. We can’t arrest our problem away. We can’t provide enough treatment. I don’t think it’s a money issue. Is there a solution at all to this problem? Or will we need to have a great awakening? I don’t see this trajectory stopping.”
As we talked, someone who was organizing a statewide conference stopped by Moran’s judge’s quarters to ask if he’d be available to talk about some of the changes taking place inside the Marathon County Courthouse. This small distraction gave me an opportunity inside his chambers to take it all in…
His windows show a familiar scene from a new angle. The bright light streaming in transforms Moran’s chamber into the perfect life-sized terrarium for his many plants (as can be seen in the photo below). Books line two of his walls, floor to ceiling. There’s a long, sturdy table that I imagine has held hundreds of documents for careful study. He also has a surprising collection of pop culture kitsch, including Pee Wee Herman and King Kong Bundy dolls. When I asked him about those, he laughed and said:
“I like to surround myself with the things I love.”
And then there’s his collection of President Abraham Lincoln swag. Moran is a fanatic for President Lincoln. In fact, it was Lincoln who inspired Moran to go into law.
OK. Let’s circle back now and take you inside his courtroom again…
Moran talked to half a dozen defendants who were in court for the beginning of the court process. According to the judicial coordinator who works in Moran’s office, the handful of cases were part of an unusually slow day for intake. She said she usually sees between 20 and 25 defendants each Monday. And the day after Labor Day, more than 40 defendants appeared for intake. She told me that being overloaded is the new normal. While each judge used to take on caseloads of around 200, they are now taking on 400 cases, and that’s squeezing out some of the civil cases.
To one woman who missed her court date because she said she couldn’t find someone to give her a ride to Wausau from Green Bay for her appearance, Moran said:
“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.”
Judge Moran has some leeway when it comes to bond and detention ahead of court hearings. This is where his judicial philosophy presents itself. A drug dealer will see a more substantial bond and punishment than a non-violent addict.
Moran asks questions, trying to understand the situations that brought each defendant to court. Moran’s philosophy?
“We like to think that we are ‘we’ and they are ‘them.’ But it turns out that we’re all ‘them.’”
As Judge Moran sends each defendant on, he makes sure each person understands what he or she has to do next, whether that’s getting a lawyer, maintaining sobriety, or signing up for text alerts for any upcoming court appearances.
Now in his second term, Judge Moran hears from some of the people who have appeared in his courtroom, thanking him for being a voice for change in their lives. According to Moran:
“I get letters saying, ‘Thank you, I thought you really cared about my situation and who I was. I now have a job and I’m going to school.’”
Court in Marathon County under Judge Michael Moran is not at all like the drama you see in Judge Judy or Judge Wapner’s courtrooms on TV.
And it shows…
Marathon County Board Supervisor | District 1
Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup. Email Katie Rosenberg
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