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With threats against judges on the rise, lawmakers push judicial security package

There have been 142 threats against judges and justices in state during past year, per Wisconsin Supreme Court Marshal's Office

The Assembly chambers as seen from a balcony view.
The Wisconsin Assembly Chambers has an abundance of artistic detail maintained by decorative painters and conservation technicians Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

In the past year, there have been 142 threats made against Wisconsin judges, according to the Wisconsin Supreme Court Marshal’s Office. Now, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers is working on a package of bills to limit access to judges’ personal information.

In 2022, a retired Juneau County Circuit Court Judge John Roemer was zip-tied to a chair in his home and executed. Police said a 56-year-old man, who had been sent to prison by Roemer more than a decade earlier, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the judge’s house. 

In public testimony on a package of judicial security bills circulating through the state Capitol, fellow judges from Wisconsin said they don’t know how the suspect knew where Roemer lived, but several said they have faced threats of violence or death during their careers. 

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The bills, introduced by Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison; Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, D-Milwaukee; Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison; Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green; and Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, aim to reduce those threats. 

Under one of the bills, judges would be able to request that government agencies not publish personal information about them or their families. Internet “data brokers” like Google and other companies would be also be prohibited from selling that information following such a request.

Another bill would make it a crime to protest outside a judges home “with intent to interfere with, obstruct or impede” the judge’s duties. Those found guilty would face a fine of up to $10,000 and up to nine months in jail. 

Lastly, documents called judicial security profiles filed with local law enforcement, which include information like the layout of a judges home, a judge’s medical history, the identity of family members in the residence, and whether there’s a security system, would no longer be publicly available via public records requests. 

Some judges told lawmakers they haven’t filled out the security profiles for fear of them becoming public. 

In written testimony, Calumet County Circuit Court Judge Carey Reed said he was shocked to learn the profiles “are not already protected.” 

“I never would have filled a profile out, had I known it was available to would-be attackers,” Reed said. “It is meant to aid police in the event of an attack, not to provide assistance to the attacker.”

More than a dozen state and federal judges from around Wisconsin sent testimony in support of the bills. Most referenced Roemer’s execution along with other recent murders of judges and their family members in other states.

Threats against Wisconsin judges vary, but becoming more common

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, who has pushed to bolster judicial security in the state and even called for a new police force to protect justices and judges, told lawmakers that in “the last 12 months alone, the Supreme Court Marshal’s Office documented 142 threats against judges and justices in the Wisconsin Court System, 44 of which were direct threats of physical harm or death.”

“Judges should not be threatened with acts of violence from people or groups who want to intimidate or harm us, push a cause, subvert the rule of law, or control the outcome of a case,” Ziegler said.

In written testimony, a Sheboygan County Circuit Court Judge said a litigant left a pound of meat wrapped in white freezer paper that was “leaking a red substance” with a court reporter. The paper had a message saying the judge could burn the meat “like you burned me.” That same judge said another past litigant threatened to kill her or her family.  

A St. Croix Circuit Court Judge said a sheriff’s deputy had been assigned to his residence following threats by a defendant in a case. There was a standoff with police and the person was taken into custody.

Ortiz-Velez told WPR there’s a national trend aimed at minimizing future threats. 

“People are looking at making sure that our judges are being protected, so that they can complete their duties without fear of harm or, physical harm to themselves or their immediate family members,” said Ortiz-Velez. 

Tusler agreed and said bill authors have received wide-ranging bipartisan support for making the changes. 

“And what these bills are designed to do is common sense, easy stuff, we can do to make our judges feel a little bit more secure at home and a little bit more secure with their personal information,” said Tusler.

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