On June 3, 2022, retired Juneau County Circuit Court Judge John Roemer was shot and killed in his New Lisbon home by a 56-year-old man whom Roemer had sentenced to prison in 2007.
The assailant, who later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, had a list containing names of governmental officials, including Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Law enforcement investigators said the man targeted Roemer.
Five days after Roemer was murdered, employees of the U.S. Marshals Service arrested an armed man outside the Maryland home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. A federal grand jury later indicted the man on charges of attempted murder.
“It’s a national problem,” said Judge Randy Koschnick, director of Wisconsin State Courts. “Threats against judges are becoming more and more common across all state and federal court systems.”
‘You Can’t Remember Most of These Cases’
Juneau County Circuit Court Judge Paul Curran, who’s been on the bench for 14 years, said it’s impossible to pick his brain for memories of criminal defendants who appeared before him and might pose a threat to him.
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.
“Most circuit judges get probably 500 or so criminal cases a year,” Curran said. “You can’t remember most of these cases. The ones you remember are the ones that go to trial, and a very small percentage go to trial. Otherwise, it’s just a face that was in your courtroom who knows when, and on that particular day there were probably 25 other faces in the courtroom.”
Even if he could scan his memories of everyone who’s come before him for sentencing, Curran said, he wouldn’t.
“You just can’t think like that,” Judge Curran said. “It would drive you nuts and certainly drive you off the bench.”
All he can do, Judge Curran said, is follow recommended safety practices.
“When I walk out my back door and get in my car to go to work, I’m looking around,” Curran said. “When I get to the parking lot, I’m looking around. I try not to drive the same route every day.”
Judge Curran has a concealed carry permit. But he said security measures go only so far in guarding against a threat posed by an individual with mental health issues or intent to do harm.
Security is a Priority
During an address at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Board of Governors’ meeting in December 2022, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler announced that she had appointed a task force to make recommendations on improving security for the state’s 72 county courthouses and 380 active and reserve judges.
Chief Justice Ziegler told the board that the murder of Judge Roemer six months earlier was a tragic awakening to the peril faced by judges, who must often make difficult decisions that affect the liberty interests, families, and financial affairs of litigants.
The 20-member task force, which Justice Ziegler chairs, includes appellate and circuit court judges, court administrators, state and local police officials, and a member of the private bar appointed by the State Bar. [See the accompanying sidebar.]
Judge Koschnick said the task force plans to gather information from stakeholders and make recommendations.
“We want to have a statewide approach to enhancing judicial security, from training to models and plans for securing courthouses, and adequate security for supreme court and court of appeals judges,” Koschnick said.
Task Force as Supplement
The state court system has already taken steps to address courthouse security.
In 2012, the Wisconsin Supreme Court promulgated Supreme Court Rules chapter 68, to facilitate communication among circuit courts, county officials, and contractors regarding courthouse security issues. Additionally, for a decade, the supreme court has organized an annual security conference.
But the recent increase in threats against judges has highlighted the need to do more. Among the recommendations the task force will consider, Koschnick said, is legislation that would expand the supreme court’s marshal’s office and grant that office law enforcement authority.
Currently, the supreme court has one marshal, Tammy Johnson. Although Johnson is a former police officer, Koschnick said, she’s not authorized to carry a weapon or arrest people. That means the supreme court must rely on State Capitol Police officers, who are executive branch employees, for security for court hearings.
“We’d like to expand the marshal’s office to make it a law enforcement agency with arrest powers,” Koschnick said. “Most surrounding states do have at least a few police officers who can carry weapons and have arrest powers who work for the court system.”
Many of the courthouses in Wisconsin’s 72 counties already have enhanced safety measures such as single entrances and metal detectors. But for counties with courthouses that lack these features, fiscal realities and competing interests can make adding them anything but easy.
Koschnick cites his own experience in Jefferson County, where he served as a circuit court judge for 18 years. Koschnick led the effort to renovate the then 50-year-old courthouse so that it had a single entrance and weapons screening.
“That took five or six years from beginning to end, and that’s with all parties cooperating,” Koschnick said. “If you have some resistance, whether it’s because of the expense or to the concept of citizens begin scanned for weapons when they come to the courthouse to pay their property taxes or attend a court hearing … it very much is a local issue for each county.”
Personal Security a Separate Problem
Judge Curran said Juneau County has a justice center, which was built in the last 25 years and features a single entrance, metal detectors, and a keypad for access to the judges’ chambers.
“I can’t think of anything that would be safer,” Judge Curran said. “Every morning, somebody from the sheriff’s department goes through the courtrooms and looks with a mirror on wheels underneath all the seats to see if something was left there.”
But hardened buildings mean little in terms of protecting judges inside their homes.
“The security that we have in the justice center in Juneau County, which I would rate very highly, did [Roemer] no good,” Curran said. “He was retired for three years and wasn’t here anyway.”
Danger Extends to Attorneys
The danger extends beyond the bench – lawyers too are increasingly at risk – and beyond criminal law. Cases involving families, including divorces and child custody issues, can be highly emotional for all involved, as evidenced by recent tragedies involving violence against family law attorneys.
In December 2022, a 65-year-old man walked into attorney Doug Lewis’s office in Lawrenceville, Georgia, fatally shot Lewis, and then set fire to the office. Lewis had represented the man’s wife in a divorce. The attack on Lewis came one week before the alleged shooter and his wife were scheduled to appear in court and six days after Lewis informed the court that the shooter had yet to pay his wife $28,000 in court-ordered legal fees.1
In an article about the murder, the Washington Post reported that when Utah attorney Stephen D. Kelson conducted a survey of lawyers between 2006 and 2018, 32.5% from 28 states said that they’d experienced violence or threats of violence.2 Kelson wrote about his findings in Wisconsin Lawyer in 2019.3
The Georgia tragedy occurred five-and-one-half years after a similar tragedy in Wisconsin. In March 2017, Schofield attorney Sara H. Quirt-Sann was among four victims killed in shootings that occurred in three separate locations around Wausau. Quirt-Sann was representing the gunman’s wife in divorce proceedings. The gunman also killed two of the wife’s coworkers before killing a police officer in a standoff, which also led to the gunman’s death.
‘It Happens Even in Mayberry’
Judge Curran said that Roemer was the last judge he thought would be threatened by a former criminal defendant.
“Judge Roemer was a very, very kind man, a very kind judge,” Curran said. “He hated sending people to prison, and everybody knew it.”
Despite the nationwide uptick in threats against lawyers and judges, Judge Curran said he hadn’t noticed increased worry in Juneau County, a rural county in central Wisconsin that Curran likened to Mayberry, the sleepy southern town that provided the setting for the TV series The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s.
But that doesn’t mean the danger isn’t real, Curran said.
“I don’t think anybody around Juneau County thinks of themselves as being in desperate danger at all times,” Curran said. “But obviously, it happens. It even happens in Mayberry.”
Also of Interest
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Members of the Chief Justice’s Judicial Security Task Force
Chief Justice Annette K. Ziegler, Wisconsin Supreme Court (chair)
Hon. Maxine White, Associate Judge, Court of Appeals District I, Milwaukee
Hon. Michael Bohren, Circuit Court Judge, Waukesha County
Hon. James Morrison, Circuit Court Judge, Marinette County
Hon. Scott Needham, Circuit Court Judge, St. Croix County
Hon. Joseph Sciascia, Circuit Court Judge, Dodge County
Hon. Dick Ginkowski, Municipal Court Judge, Pleasant Prairie Municipal Court
Susan Byrnes, district court administrator, 9th Judicial Administrative District
Atty. Brian Dimmer, Richards & Dimmer SC, Racine
Atty. Karley Downing, Chief Legal Counsel, Wisconsin Supreme Court
Colonel David Fish, Wisconsin State Patrol
Caitlin Frederick, deputy director of state courts for management services
Diane Fremgen, deputy director of state courts for court operations
Marshal Tammy Johnson, Wisconsin Supreme Court
Hon. Randy R. Koschnick, Director of State Courts
Agent Marshall Ogren, Division of Criminal Investigation, Wisconsin Department of Justice
Sheriff Martin Schulteis, Washington County Sheriff’s Office
Sheriff Eric Severson, Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department
Dean Stensberg, public member
Captain Malanie Von Haden, Wisconsin State Capitol Police
1 Ramon Antonio Vargas, Georgia Man Accused of Killing Wife’s Divorce Lawyer and Setting Office on Fire, The Guardian (Dec. 11, 2022), www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/dec/11/georgia-man-accused-killing-wifes-divorce-lawyer.
2 Kyle Melnick, Nobody’s Safe: Lawyers Take Precautions After Ga. Attorney’s Killing, Wash. Post (Dec. 15, 2022), www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/12/15/lawyer-attorney-killed-georgia-client/.
3 Stephen D. Kelson, The Threat of Violence: What Wisconsin Lawyers Experience, 92 Wis. Law. 22-29 (June 2019).
» Cite this article: 96 Wis. Law. 20-24 (February 2023).