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And now to the strange story of a federal judge in Milwaukee, who is refusing to take new criminal cases. As Erin Toner of member station WUWM explains, it stems from a series of spats with prosecutors.
ERIN TONER: I'm at the federal courthouse in downtown Milwaukee. And you can't take cameras or recorders inside, so I'm out on the sidewalk. There are four federal district judges who work in this building and they all have lifetime appointments. It's a pretty secretive place. Judges here particularly don't say a lot to reporters. And that's certainly the case now regarding what's going on in Judge J.P. Stadtmueller's courtroom. But observers say it's a story about politics, judicial impropriety and possibly, hurt feelings.
Mr. JON SANFILIPPO (Federal Court Clerk): As I look at it, it really springs from one case.
TONER: Federal Court Clerk Jon Sanfilippo is the only person at the courthouse willing to talk about why Judge Stadtmueller is passing off criminal cases. The judge himself declined repeated requests for interviews. And his colleagues on the federal bench won't say anything about it either. The interim U.S. attorney from Milwaukee also declined to comment, saying it wouldn't be appropriate. Federal Court Clerk Sanfilippo says it all started after a ruling in July by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Prosecutors thought Judge 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. Clerk Sanfilippo says since that ruling, Judge Stadtmueller stopped taking new criminal cases from the government and recused himself from 22 existing ones. He is still taking civil cases.
Mr. SANFILIPPO: He believes that he's acting appropriately under the circumstances, trying to provide a situation where there's no problem in terms of perception. And as this has been unfolding, he's been very adamant about making sure he has a full caseload.
TONER: Before he was appointed to the federal bench in 1987, Judge Stadtmueller ran the U.S. attorney's office in Milwaukee. And over the years, he's criticized the type of cases his successors have brought to federal court. When Stadtmueller was a prosecutor, most federal cases involved sophisticated white-collar crimes. Now, there are many more gun and drug cases. And you can see the judge's frustration in court documents. In taking Stadtmueller off the earlier gun case, the appeals court ruled that he broke judicial rules by suggesting a plea bargain.
The judge also 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've sent the defendant to prison for at least 15 years. Robin Shellow is a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee. She says she's seen a growing concern among judges over the federalization of street crime.
Ms. ROBIN SHELLOW (Criminal Defense Attorney, Milwaukee): In Judge Stadtmueller's court, 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.
TONER: Shellow says she's represented dozens of kids who were convicted of gun crimes and sent to prison for life.
Ms. SHELLOW: 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.
TONER: But is that his job?
Professor JANINE GESKE (Law, Marquette University): Each judge has his or her personality and method of feeling how they can best achieve justice in their court.
TONER: Janine Geske is a law professor at Marquette University and a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice.
Prof. GESKE: 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.
TONER: Again, amid the speculation, Judge Stadtmueller has not publicly explained why he's passing off 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. Judge Stadtmueller told the court clerk he'll resume taking cases once a permanent U.S. attorney for Milwaukee is appointed. But that could be months away.
For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.