Voters in Winnebago County will decide whether to return to the bench a judge who was suspended for judicial misconduct two years ago after he showed a gun in court and referred to a 13-year-old victim of sexual assault as a "so-called victim."
The state Supreme Court in 2021 suspended Winnebago County Judge Scott Woldt for seven days after it found him guilty of judicial misconduct in six separate incidents in eight years.
In 2014, Judge Scott Woldt referred to a 13-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by an 18-year-old as a "so-called victim" and said the 18-year-old "got into a situation where (he was) taken advantage of," according to the Court's disciplinary finding. He called the 18-year-old a "smart man" and a "low risk to re-offend."
In 2015, Woldt pulled out a handgun in court during a sentencing hearing in a burglary and stalking case. He again showed his gun at the courthouse in 2016, that time to a touring school group. Other incidents of judicial misconduct included berating a domestic violence victim by saying he was "sick and tired" of abuse victims who recanted or disputed charges brought against abusers.
Woldt is seeking reelection to the bench for the third time since he was appointed in 2004.
Woldt did not respond to interview requests or a list of questions provided by Wisconsin Public Radio. His opponent, LaKeisha Haase, was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to a judgeship in 2020 but lost an election in 2021.
Haase said voters should take the sanction against Woldt into account.
"I do not have to kick anyone when they're down," Haase said. "I don't have to make those disparaging remarks about someone."
She noted that the 13-year-old victim reported the crime to police and spoke to the district attorney's office. According to court documents, Woldt characterized her as a "so-called victim" in the course of criticizing her for not responding to a presentencing investigation report.
"He took an opportunity to knock a 13-year-old down because she didn't respond in a way that he felt was appropriate. That's disgusting," Haase said.
Complaints against judges are common, as defendants seek to contest unfavorable decisions or criticize a judge's manner in the courtroom. But a suspension for judicial misconduct like the one Woldt received is exceedingly rare. Between 1978 and 2021, only 15 Wisconsin judges have been suspended, according to data from the Wisconsin Judicial Commission.
In order to protect against reputation damage from frivolous or unfounded complaints, the Judicial Commission does not release details or names in complaints until it has investigated and made a recommendation for public reprimand or suspension. Those recommendations go to the state Supreme Court, which makes the final decision.
In 2021, the Judicial Commission received 2,043 initial inquiries, of which only 36 became official requests for investigation. Woldt's case was the only one that led to a reprimand or suspension that year. The commission has not published data from 2022.
Woldt's campaign website does not include reference to the suspension. At an Oshkosh candidate forum held this month by the League of Women Voters, he indirectly responded to the finding, saying at least one of the complaints came from an attorney who had a personal grievance against him. He did not apologize for the judicial misconduct, which the Supreme Court found to have "a significant detrimental impact on the public's view of the judiciary."
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"Now, am I the nicest guy all the time?" Woldt said at the forum, shaking his head no. "I don't sugarcoat it. I tell it the way it is."
Haase said that's not the issue.
"It's not a matter of being blunt. It's a matter of the disrespect that you show. The personal opinion that he has of someone — which should be absent in his judgment," she said.
Most local judges run unopposed
Voters typically don't have a lot of information when it comes to judicial elections, especially at the municipal or circuit court levels, said Margo Kirchner, director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
"A lot of voters probably go in and don't know who any of these people are," Kirchner said.
And the great majority of incumbent judges run unopposed. The Justice Initiative, a liberal group that advocates for criminal justice reform, published a study in 2022 that found that more than 80 percent of the state's judicial races were uncontested. And most of those with more than one candidate were in cases where a judge's retirement had left an open seat.
Especially in smaller communities, Kirchner said, attorneys see challenging as a career risk.
"Attorneys are hesitant to take on an incumbent," she said. "If they lose, they have to then go and appear in front of that judge. ... A lot of attorneys don't want to take that risk."
As in Wisconsin's high-profile Supreme Court race, many local judicial races, though officially nonpartisan, are politically polarized. Haase was appointed by a Democratic governor, and is receiving support from local Democrats. Woldt, whose campaign committee chair is GOP state Rep. Michael Schraa, is endorsed by Republicans.
Republicans generally have a slight edge in Winnebago County. The county voted for GOP President Donald Trump 51-47 in 2020; Evers received 49 percent of the vote there in 2022 while Republican candidate Tim Michels received 50 percent.
Haase said she is not a member of a political party, and said she sought the endorsements of both the Republican and Democratic parties in Winnebago County, meeting with both. She noted Woldt was initially appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, but acknowledged the race has become politically polarized in spite of this.
Only 6 Wisconsin judges disciplined in 5 years
Sanctions for judicial misconduct are highly unusual, and some result in a public reprimand but no suspension. In addition to Woldt's case, these are other recent disciplinary actions against judges:
In February, the Judicial Commission dismissed a complaint against Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky.
A high-profile complaint from 2010 against then-Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman was dropped after justices deadlocked. That case involved a dispute about whether a campaign ad approved by Gableman had lied about his opponent, then-Justice Louis Butler. Gableman did not seek reelection in 2018, and went on to lead the Republican investigation into the 2020 election. A liberal legal group filed a new ethics complaint against him this month with the Office of Lawyer regulation, calling that investigation a sham.