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After New Lisbon judge was murdered, Wisconsin chief justice says she pushed for new judicial police force

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler says state lawmakers wouldn't fund security force

Conservative Chief Justice Annette Ziegler
Conservative Chief Justice Annette Ziegler has tried to put the brakes on the Supreme Court liberal majority’s new administrative rules, which have blocked her authority. She is seen in the Wisconsin Supreme Court Hearing Room in Madison, Wis., on Dec. 1, 2022. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

After a retired judge in New Lisbon was murdered last year, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler said she sought to create a new police force to protect judges throughout Wisconsin. But state lawmakers, she said, wouldn’t fund it.

In June 2022, retired Juneau County Circuit Court Judge John Roemer was zip-tied to a chair and murdered in his home. The alleged shooter, Douglas Uhde, was found in the basement and later died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Uhde had previously been sentenced to six years in prison by Roemer.

As she gave her State of the Judiciary address Wednesday, Zeigler referenced the slaying and another judicial murder last month.

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“The recent horrific execution of a Maryland judge, as he stood in his own driveway in his own home, continues to remind us that we have to be vigilant at all times and we need to enhance judicial security,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler said her vision is to have a “robust security infrastructure” for the courts that includes training for judges and staff, added protection for the public along with physical and technological safety measures “so that we have continually monitored internet surveillance in an effort to avoid and also detect problems and threats before they occur.”

That vision also included a new police force known as the Supreme Court Marshal’s Office.

“In this last legislative budget cycle, I worked very hard to obtain a judicial security package from the legislature that would provide us with our own judicial branch law enforcement department,” Ziegler said.

The proposal from Ziegler didn’t wind up being an official agency request during state budget negotiations, but a calendar provided by Ziegler’s office per the state’s open records law shows the chief justice had meetings scheduled in early May with Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, and State Sen. Howard Marklien, R-Spring Green, as they were crafting the Legislature’s version of the budget. Born and Marklein co-chair the powerful Joint Finance Committee.

When asked for details by Wisconsin Public Radio, the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Public Information Office said a request was made to the Joint Finance Committee to create a specialized agency within the Supreme Court “with peace officers permitted to carry firearms in the same manner as state, county, and local law enforcement officers and empowered to exercise arresting authority within the context of their official duties.”

“The agency would collaborate with local law enforcement agencies as needed regarding active threats or incidents and be available to provide mutual aid as needed,” read a statement from the court. “Local law enforcement agencies would retain current jurisdiction in all areas including courthouse security, active emergencies, and investigations.”

Addressing the crowd of judges from around the state, Ziegler said lawmakers were uninterested in creating a new Supreme Court police force.

“Unfortunately, even when the need is so obvious, we hit a roadblock when it came to establishing an independent judicial branch of law enforcement,” Ziegler said. “Bottom line: the Legislature was not willing to fund a new agency or create one.”

Staff for Rep. Born and Sen. Marklein did not respond to a request for comment.

Ziegler said lawmakers did provide funding to boost cybersecurity measures for the Wisconsin Circuit Court System’s website, known as CCAP.

Ziegler said she also pursued other options for security, including an idea to add new officers to the Wisconsin State Patrol’s Dignitary Protection Unit who would be assigned to the Supreme Court. The unit currently guards the Governor and foreign dignitaries visiting Wisconsin.