State v. Matthews (In re Matthews)

Decision Date14 May 2021
Docket NumberNo. 2018AP2142,2018AP2142
Citation2021 WI 42,959 N.W.2d 640,397 Wis.2d 1
Parties IN RE the COMMITMENT OF Tavodess MATTHEWS: State of Wisconsin, Petitioner-Respondent, v. Tavodess Matthews, Respondent-Appellant-Petitioner.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For the respondent-appellant-petitioner, there were briefs filed by Dustin C. Haskell, assistant state public defender. There was an oral argument by Dustin C. Haskell.

For the petitioner-respondent, there was a brief filed by Sara Lynn Shaeffer, assistant attorney general; with whom on the brief was Joshua L. Kaul, attorney general. There was an oral argument by Sara Lynn Shaeffer.

DALLET, J., delivered the majority opinion for a unanimous Court.

REBECCA FRANK DALLET, J.

¶1 This case is about whether Tavodess Matthews timely requested a judicial substitution under Wis. Stat. § 801.58(1) (2019-20).1 Section 801.58(1) entitles a party in a civil case to substitute the assigned circuit court judge if, among other things, that party files a written substitution request before "the hearing of any preliminary contested matters." Matthews filed his substitution request after the circuit court granted his motion to adjourn a scheduled probable cause hearing under Wis. Stat. ch. 980. We hold that Matthews' substitution request was timely because his motion to adjourn is not a "preliminary contested matter" per that phrase's accepted legal meaning and the circuit court heard no other such matter before Matthews filed his request. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals.

I

¶2 This case arises from the early stages of proceedings to commit Matthews as a sexually violent person under Wis. Stat. ch. 980.2 After the State files a petition to commence ch. 980 proceedings, the circuit court must "hold a hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the person named in the petition is a sexually violent person." Wis. Stat. § 980.04(2). The circuit court must hold a probable cause hearing for a person already in the State's custody "no later than 10 days after the person's scheduled release or discharge date." Id. If the court determines that there is probable cause to believe that the person is sexually violent, then the Department of Health Services evaluates the person to determine whether that is in fact the case. § 980.04(3). Otherwise, the circuit court must dismiss the petition. Id.

¶3 Here, after the State filed its ch. 980 petition, the circuit court set a probable cause hearing for August 15, 2018 (eight days after Matthews' scheduled release from the Green Bay Correctional Institution), and appointed two attorneys to represent Matthews. Matthews' attorneys met with him for the first time on the morning of the probable cause hearing. That same morning, Matthews' attorneys told the State they intended to ask the circuit court to adjourn the hearing because they needed more time to prepare. As a result, the State told its sole witness not to appear.

¶4 At the outset of the probable cause hearing, the circuit court acknowledged that the parties were "not going forward with the hearing."3 Matthews' counsel requested additional time to prepare, noting that Matthews had no objection to rescheduling the hearing outside of the 10-day window required under Wis. Stat. § 980.04(2). The State objected to the adjournment "for the record," but admitted that it was "in a somewhat difficult position" as it had let go of its witness for the day. Despite its "disappointment," the circuit court agreed to reschedule the hearing so long as Matthews waived his statutory right to a probable cause determination within 10 days of his scheduled release. Matthews did so, and the circuit court rescheduled the hearing for August 29.

¶5 The morning of the rescheduled hearing, Matthews' counsel filed a written request under Wis. Stat. § 801.58(1) to substitute the circuit court judge. Section 801.58(1) provides that a party in a civil action, such as a ch. 980 commitment proceeding, may request to substitute the circuit court judge before "the hearing of any preliminary contested matters" but "not later than 60 days after the summons and complaint are filed." § 801.58(1). Matthews argued that his motion was timely because he filed it only 33 days after the State filed its ch. 980 petition and, since the circuit court had not actually commenced the probable cause hearing, it had not yet heard a "contested matter." The circuit court disagreed, finding Matthews' request untimely because the State's objection to Matthews' motion to adjourn rendered the matter "contested." The circuit court also noted that it had made the "substantive decision" to accept Matthews' time-limit waiver, so it was too late for Matthews to request a substitution. Upon review,4 Chief Judge Maxine A. White of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court agreed with the circuit court's determination, explaining that Matthews' time waiver constituted a preliminary contested matter.

¶6 The court of appeals accepted Matthews' interlocutory appeal and affirmed the circuit court's ruling.5 State v. Matthews, 2020 WI App 33, 392 Wis. 2d 715, 946 N.W.2d 200. Relying mainly upon Sielen 6 and Galaxy Gaming,7 the court of appeals reasoned that the circuit court had heard a preliminary contested matter when it granted Matthews' motion to adjourn the probable cause hearing because the circuit court could have denied Matthews' motion and held the hearing—a decision that would have "obviously implicated the merits." Id., ¶19 (quoted source omitted). The court of appeals explained that both the scheduled probable cause hearing and Matthews' motion to adjourn that hearing were, in a literal sense, "contested": Matthews and the State disagreed about whether there was probable cause to commit Matthews and the State objected to Matthews' motion to adjourn the hearing. See id. The court of appeals therefore held that the circuit court had heard a preliminary contested matter prior to Matthews' judicial substitution request, rendering that request untimely. We granted Matthews' petition for review.

II

¶7 This case turns on our interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 801.58(1), which is a question of law that we review de novo. See Moreschi v. Village of Williams Bay, 2020 WI 95, ¶13, 395 Wis. 2d 55, 953 N.W.2d 318. In relevant part, § 801.58(1) provides as follows:

Any party to a civil action or proceeding may file a written request ... for a substitution of a new judge for the judge assigned to the case. The written request shall be filed preceding the hearing of any preliminary contested matters and, if by the plaintiff, not later than 60 days after the summons and complaint are filed ....

¶8 Our focus here is specifically on the phrase "the hearing of any preliminary contested matters," which both parties recognize as the crux of the case. Matthews maintains that we have previously held that only substantive issues are preliminary contested matters. According to Matthews, a motion to adjourn a probable cause hearing is not a substantive issue; therefore, it is not a preliminary contested matter. He also argues that a party timely files a substitution request if it does so before the circuit court actually hears a substantive issue. The State counters that the circuit court held a hearing on a preliminary contested matter when it commenced what was scheduled to be a probable cause hearing. The State asserts that because Matthews filed his substitution request after he appeared at that hearing, his substitution request was untimely.

¶9 We resolve this dispute first by interpreting the phrase "preliminary contested matters" and then by analyzing what it means for there to be "the hearing of" such matters. The goal of statutory interpretation is to give the statutory text its "full, proper, and intended effect."

State ex rel. Kalal v. Cir. Ct. for Dane Cnty., 2004 WI 58, ¶44, 271 Wis. 2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110. We generally give words their common, everyday meaning, "but we give legal terms of art their accepted legal meaning." Estate of Matteson v. Matteson, 2008 WI 48 ¶22, 309 Wis. 2d 311, 749 N.W.2d 557 ; Wis. Stat. § 990.01(1). When the legislature adopts a phrase from the common law that has a specific legal meaning and does not otherwise define it, we presume that the legislature adopts the phrase's specific legal meaning. Bank Mut. v. S.J. Boyer Constr., Inc., 2010 WI 74, ¶39, 326 Wis. 2d 521, 785 N.W.2d 462 ; see also Strenke v. Hogner, 2005 WI 25, ¶28, 279 Wis. 2d 52, 694 N.W.2d 296 (explaining that when the legislature uses a "specific common law phrase," we presume it does so with "full knowledge" of that phrase's meaning). That principle applies with at least equal force when the legislature amends a statute to incorporate language from one of this court's decisions, resulting in a "significant revision to the language in which we are interested." See White v. City of Watertown, 2019 WI 9, ¶10, 385 Wis. 2d 320, 922 N.W.2d 61. Indeed, a statute's background, encompassing its "previously enacted and repealed provisions," can provide helpful context for a plain-meaning analysis. United States v. Franklin, 2019 WI 64, ¶13, 387 Wis. 2d 259, 928 N.W.2d 545 ; see also Richards v. Badger Mut. Ins. Co., 2008 WI 52, ¶22, 309 Wis. 2d 541, 749 N.W.2d 581.

¶10 Applying these principles to Wis. Stat. § 801.58(1) reveals two things. First, that "preliminary contested matters" has a specific legal meaning, which the legislature explicitly adopted when it amended § 801.58(1). And second, that there is no "hearing of" a preliminary contested matter until a court actually hears such a matter.

A

¶11 The phrase "preliminary contested matters" has a specific legal meaning referring to pretrial issues that go to the ultimate merits of the case. The roots of this meaning can be traced to the court's interpretation of a mid-nineteenth century change-of-venue statute. That statute provided that when a party requested a change of venue...

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2 books & journal articles
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