A federal judge in Milwaukee has taken the unusual step of refusing to accept new criminal cases and recusing himself from existing ones, in a move observers say is about politics, impropriety and, possibly, hurt feelings.
Federal Court Clerk Jon Sanfilippo says the way he sees it, the reason Judge J.P. Stadtmueller is refusing criminal cases "really springs from one case."
Sanfilippo, the only person at the federal courthouse in downtown Milwaukee who was willing to talk about the situation, says it all started after a ruling in July by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Prosecutors thought Stadtmueller showed bias in a gun case and took the rare move of asking the appeals court to remove him, which it did. Stadtmueller accused the U.S. attorney's office of judge-shopping.
The judge declined repeated requests for interviews; neither his colleagues on the federal bench nor the interim U.S. attorney for Milwaukee would comment.
Sanfilippo says since that ruling, Stadtmueller stopped taking new criminal cases from the government and recused himself from 22 existing ones. He is still taking civil cases, however.
"He believes that he's acting appropriately under the circumstances, trying to provide a situation where there's no problem in terms of perception," Sanfilippo says, "and as this has been unfolding, he's been very adamant about making sure he has a full caseload."
Frustration Over Types Of Cases
Before Stadtmueller was given a lifetime appointment to the federal bench in 1987, he ran the U.S. attorney's office in Milwaukee. Over the years, he has criticized the type of cases his successors have brought to federal court.
When Stadtmueller was a prosecutor, most federal cases involved white-collar crimes. Now, there are many more gun and drug cases, and the judge's frustration is apparent in court documents.
In taking Stadtmueller off the gun case, the appeals court ruled that he broke judicial rules by suggesting a plea bargain.
Stadtmueller had questioned the government's decision to bring the case to federal court, calling it "an embarrassment to the justice system." Documents also show Stadtmueller sought to avoid a conviction that would have sent the defendant to prison for at least 15 years.
'A Better Way'
Robin Shellow, a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee, says she has seen a growing concern among judges over the federalization of street crime.
"In virtually every criminal sentencing in a drug case, Judge Stadtmueller remarks on the number of people who are in federal prisons on that particular day," she says.
Shellow says she has represented dozens of youths who were convicted of gun crimes and sent to prison for life.
"I think that has got to weigh heavily on judges who have been around for a long time and who are saying there's got to be a better way," she says.
But is that his job?
Janine Geske, a law professor at Marquette University and a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, says each judge has his or her own method of determining how best to achieve justice in the court.
"Judge Stadtmueller had the position in the U.S. attorney's office, and I'm sure it's tough when he sees things that he thinks, if he had been in that position, he would have done differently," Geske says.
Amid the speculation, Stadtmueller has not publicly explained why he is passing on criminal cases.
This could go on for a while. All the federal criminal cases in Milwaukee are now distributed among three judges instead of four. Stadtmueller told the court clerk he will resume taking criminal cases once a permanent U.S. attorney for Milwaukee is appointed.
That, however, could be months away.