May 2, 2018 – Last year, on March 22, 2017, a gunman killed four people in three separate locations near Wausau. One of the victims was Sara Quirt-Sann, a solo attorney in Schofield, who was shot and killed in her law office.
Although Sara, 43, primarily represented the interests of children as a guardian ad litem, she had represented the gunman’s estranged wife in divorce proceedings, and was targeted for that reason. After a stand-off, the gunman was shot by police and later died.
“It’s really difficult to capture adequately how the community was feeling on March 22,” said attorney Lance Leonhard, deputy county administrator for Marathon County. A former prosecutor and deputy corporation counsel, Leonhard worked closely with Sara.
“She was skilled and knowledgeable, but more importantly, her passion was advocating for the most vulnerable in our community, whether serving as a guardian ad litem or in the cases that I handled in the child protection realm, she took that responsibility very seriously and did a fabulous job,” said Leonhard.
In the wake of this tragedy, the Wausau community was looking for ways to heal and move forward, which led to the creation of the community group, Wausau Metro Strong, spearheaded by Sara’s husband, Scott, and former Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel.
“They showed the way to move the community forward,” Leonhard said. “I’ve had the privilege to serve on the legal and legislative committee. That was really the process set in place by Jeff and Scott. It was a simple mission: build a safer community for all.”
Leonhard said one of the first tasks the Wausau Metro Strong group did was look at ways to protect lawyers like Sara who take on contentious and difficult cases involving families and children. They found that Wisconsin law already protects persons in certain positions involving risk, such as judges and law enforcement officers.
“But we saw a gap in the law. The work of a family law attorney, the work of a guardian ad litem, the work of professionals taking on those difficult cases – they weren’t covered. So that was the impetus for Sara’s law, extending that framework.”
Leonhard and other attorneys on the group’s legal and legislative committee helped draft what ultimately became “Sara’s Law,” and worked closely with sponsors Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) and Rep. Pat Snyder (R-Schofield) to get it passed.
Gov. Scott Walker signed Sara’s Law on April 11, 2018. It is now a Class H felony, under Wis. Stat section 940.203(3), to intentionally cause or threaten to cause bodily harm to lawyers (or their families) involved in proceedings affecting children and families, including private attorneys, corporation counsel, and guardians ad litem.
“It’s a tool to have a conversation. It’s a tool for the courts to have conversations with litigants in those cases, so that we can talk about how to deal with highly contentious matters that go through court every day,” Leonhard said.
Leonhard said he hopes Sara’s Law, the first of its kind in the country, will catch on in other states. And he reminds lawyers that they can make a real difference.
“Lawyers are well-situated in our communities to be those agents of change, based on our positions but also based on our skills and knowledge – to be able to analyze complex issues, see where gaps exist, and help communities move forward,” he said.