Need for change

Adopting the findings of a 3-judge panel based on stipulations, the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended a judge for 7 days without pay for (1) in a domestic violence case, mischaracterizing the victim’s in-court statement and castigating her for expressing her opinion of her relationship with the defendant, “essentially discouraging her from calling the police in any future domestic violence situations;” (2) during sentencing in a case involving the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, using “profane language and imagery” and displaying “irritation” in response to defense counsel’s argument, making clear that he did not wish to hear extended arguments, attempting to intimidate the defendant into waiving his right to speak in allocution, and referring to the girl as the “so-called victim;” (3) stating when taking a guilty plea in another case, “I would love to have a trial on this issue, I’d love that he get found guilty, and I’d love to give him a year in jail for wasting my time today.  I would love to do that, but unfortunately I can’t;” (4) using undignified, discourteous, and disrespectful language when sentencing a young defendant with cognitive impairments and “essentially” threatening the defendant by displaying a handgun as a “prop;” (5) displaying his handgun to high students visiting his courtroom; and (6) impliedly labelling an attorney a “d**k” during a custody/placement modification hearing.  In the Matter of Woldt (Wisconsin Supreme Court July 13, 2021).  The Court concluded that a short suspension was necessary “to assure the members of the public that judges will treat them with dignity, fairness, and respect when they enter the courtrooms of this state, and to impress upon Judge Woldt the seriousness of his misconduct and the need for him to change how he treats the jurors, lawyers, litigants, witnesses, victims, and staff with whom he interacts.” 

2 justices joined an opinion concurring in the 2-week suspension and most of the findings of misconduct but dissenting from the findings that the judge committed misconduct by displaying his handgun during the sentencing hearing and during the students’ visit, attributing the majority findings to political correctness and “its personal policy preferences, which appear to be grounded in ‘hoplophobia,’ i.e., an irrational fear of guns.”  Noting that the preamble to the Wisconsin code of judicial conduct states that, “Care must be taken that the Code’s necessarily general rules do not constitute a trap for the unwary judge or a weapon to be wielded unscrupulously against a judge,” the partial dissent argued that the majority “disregard[s] this prefatory admonition and weaponize[s] the Code, brandishing it as a ‘blunderbuss’ that may be used by ‘any lawyer or any pundit’ with a political agenda.”

The judge was authorized to carry a concealed gun and had a Glock Model 43 handgun in a holster on his right hip under his judicial robe. 

The first incident involving the handgun took place while the judge presided over a sentencing hearing in a case in which the defendant, Shaffer, had pled no contest to stalking.  The defendant was in his mid-20s and suffered from substantial cognitive deficiencies.  He had removed the garage door opener from his neighbors’ car and used the opener to enter the neighbors’ house.  He took some of the wife’s underwear, which he later returned.

During his sentencing comments, the judge told the husband and wife that he understood their fear and then gave “a rather lengthy soliloquy about his views on courthouse security before returning to what an appropriate sentence should be.”  For example, the judge stated to the victims that the courthouse was not “the most safest place in the world,” and “I have tried the County Board, I have tried everything to get people to do something to keep guns out of this courthouse, and nothing happens, so you know, you got to protect yourself.”  At that point, the judge removed the handgun from its holster, ejected the loaded magazine, racked the handgun’s slide to eject the bullet from the chamber, held up his handgun, and said, he kept it “up here on the bench just because I want to protect myself.  Now, I’m not saying you should do that but if I was in your – if I was in your situation, I’d have it on my side all the time.”  To the defendant, he said, for example, “With today’s laws with the Castle Doctrine, you’re lucky you’re not dead because, if you would have come into my house, I keep my gun with me and you’d be dead, plain and simple, but that’s what makes this so scary.”

The Court emphasized that the judge’s misconduct “was not the simple display of a gun; it was the display of the gun “as a ‘prop’” in connection with the comments.”

First, Judge Woldt used undignified, discourteous, and disrespectful language that demeaned the solemnity of the court proceeding and his role as the person imposing a just sentence on behalf of society.  In addition, although that case did not involve any firearm charges or even the use or threat of any firearm, Judge Woldt essentially used his sentencing comments to encourage the victims to take matters into their own hands and use a gun, as he would do.  It was at that point that he brought out the handgun from under his robe to display it for dramatic emphasis.  As the Panel noted, it was not necessary for any valid judicial purpose to display the gun and introduce an element of force into the sentencing hearing.  Most importantly, it was immediately after displaying the gun that Judge Woldt turned to addressing the defendant, who was a young man with substantial cognitive limitations.  Just two sentences after holding up the gun, Judge Woldt told this young man that he was lucky that he had not entered Judge Woldt’s house because Judge Woldt would have shot him dead on the spot with the gun that he always keeps with him (and had just displayed).  That comment in connection with the display of the gun served no purpose other than to menace and frighten the young man.  Finally, as the Panel also noted, “Judge Woldt’s comments about his own personal fear and the display of the handgun served only to personalize the proceeding and detract from his role as an impartial and fair decision maker.”

The Court concluded that the judge’s “comments, when combined with the unnecessary display of his personal handgun during the sentencing proceeding, constituted a failure to observe ‘high standards of conduct’ ‘so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved.’” It explained

 A judge who displays a personal gun as a “prop” during a court proceeding and then immediately threatens to use it to kill the defendant if he ever broke into the judge’s residence is not demonstrating the integrity of the judiciary, . . . and is not “promot[ing] public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” . . .  Such conduct does not show that the judge is conducting himself or herself as a respected judicial officer applying the law in a dispassionate and reasoned manner, as the public expects judges to do.

The Court stated that the fact that the judge was authorized to carry a concealed weapon did not resolve whether his conduct violated the code.  It explained:

The law also does not forbid individuals from engaging in impatient, undignified, and disrespectful conduct.  Indeed, in most circumstances, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects from governmental sanction speech that is impatient, undignified, and disrespectful.  That fact, however, does not mean that a judge cannot be disciplined for impatient, undignified, and disrespectful speech when the judge directs that speech to participants in a court proceeding over which the judge is presiding.

In the second incident, during a visit by a group of high school students to the judge’s courtroom during a Government Day event, a student asked the judge a question about court security, which was the topic for a debate before the county board that the students were scheduled to participate in later.  In response, the judge took the fully loaded and concealed gun out of the holster, removed the magazine and the round in the chamber, and briefly displayed the gun to those in the courtroom.

The Court emphasized that the judge displayed the gun “as a ‘prop,’ apparently to make dramatic his ongoing courthouse security complaints” and that “there was no reason to pull out a gun in response to a question from a high school student.”  Although the gun was not loaded when he displayed it, the Court noted that the judge had not disclosed that to the students.  It explained:

All they knew was that an adult judge in a black robe sitting on a judicial bench in a courtroom suddenly pulled out a gun, which for all they knew could have been loaded. . . .  Judge Woldt’s dramatic introduction of the use of force in the form of his personal handgun unnecessarily personalized what should have been an educational discussion about a topic of civic interest.  Drawing a gun in front of a group of teenage high school students when on the bench in one’s capacity as a representative of the judicial branch and when there is no judicial purpose for doing so does not promote confidence in the judge as a dispassionate and impartial arbiter of the law or in the judiciary as a whole.

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