By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
A Dane County judge who struck down parts of Act 10, the state’s law weakening collective bargaining for some public workers, has drawn a spate of letters and phone messages expressing outrage in colorful, at times vitriolic language.
“You are no more than a cheap political hack for the Marxist Democratic Party,” declares one email sent to Circuit Court Judge Juan B. Colas by someone using a fake name. He called the judge “some damned liberal activist kangaroo jurist that substitutes his own petty biases and opinions, for the rule of law.”
This was among eight critical and two positive emails or letters to the judge since his Sept. 14 ruling. The writer, who uses the closing “With Utter Contempt,” pegs Colas as racist for belonging to the Wisconsin Hispanic Lawyers Association, labels him a thug and suggests that he move to a Banana Republic, such as “Columbia” (sic). Colas was born in Colombia but has lived in Madison most of his life.
Colas’ ethnicity also was cited by a letter writer who noted his distinction as Dane County’s first Hispanic judge, saying he’ll “be know [sic] as the ‘first Hispanic judge’ to send the state of Wisconsin down the toilet.” That letter also asserted: “I hope your ruling holds!! Then when the state goes broke and they layoff [sic] firefighters, houses will burn to the ground.”
Another missive calls Colas’ 27-page ruling “DISGUSTING, DESPICABLE, REPREHENSIBLE.” An email from real estate agent Ed Konz in Sheboygan states, “Not sure who you think you are. I believe you should resign at once, you are a disgrace Sir to our Court system.”
“I felt very strongly about it,” said Konz, confirming that he sent the email.
And a signed letter from Marilyn Grainger of Waukesha chides Colas for being unable “to separate your own liberal views from what is not only best for the state but legal.” Grainger wrote that the judge’s “biased liberal decision” has created “unrest, uncertainty, and a whole lot of anger in this state.”
The attacks from members of the public follow those made by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who labeled Colas a “liberal activist judge.” Last week Walker’s campaign began soliciting signatures for a petition that states, “An activist judge in Madison chose to put politics ahead of your votes by striking down Gov. Walker’s good government budget reforms.”
The state Justice Department is challenging his ruling.
Callers also weighed in
Besides the written correspondence, Colas has received a dozen critical and five positive office voicemail messages. Colas was called “a low-life scum” and given “the stupid ass of the week award.”
These contacts were released in response to an open records request from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which has posted them at www.wisconsinwatch.org/colasmail/.
In an accompanying letter, Colas’ judicial assistant, Don Knott, said the judge “has not viewed or listened to” these communications, to preserve his impartiality. Knott said he fielded several more calls, pro as well as con, adding that “at least one person used vulgar, foul language.”
Colas declined to comment. But Bill Foust, chief judge of the Fifth Judicial Administrative District, which includes Dane County, lamented the harsh, “personal” response to judicial rulings. “The judges that I know work hard and try to apply the rules of law to the facts at hand.”
Foust criticized Walker for his attacks on Colas, as well as his earlier criticism of Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi, who struck down the collective bargaining law last year in a ruling later overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the leader of the executive branch has so little respect for the third branch of government,” Foust said. “People who work for the government should be respectful of our fellow branches of government.”
A sense of victimization
Lester Pines, an attorney representing labor unions on the winning side of Colas’ ruling, according to an email attributed to him, said he did not blame Walker for “the racist sentiments” expressed in the correspondence, which he reviewed.
However, he added, “What I hold Gov. Walker responsible for is his demagogic and unrelenting attack on the integrity of the judiciary, particularly judges in Dane County.” He said the governor deliberately is trying to fuel a sense of victimization among his supporters.
“That is just what the governor wants: an angry base of supporters, who refuse to acknowledge any point of view but the governor’s. It’s a perfect example of his continuing use of the strategy of ‘divide and conquer.’ ”
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie took issue with these remarks, saying the governor “is not responsible for other people’s voicemails. We stand by our comments. Act 10 is constitutional.”
He added that Walker “did not blame union leaders for the mountains of death threats he received” over the collective bargaining changes. And he challenged “the premise of your story,” which he said was “completely hand fed by Pines.”
Colas, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, was appointed to the bench in 2008 by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and elected to a six-year term in 2009. He previously served 16 years as an assistant attorney general, where his duties included prosecuting sexual offenders. He also has worked as an assistant public defender.
Records show that Colas has given $275 to state political candidates since late 2008: $75 to Waukesha County Judge Kathryn Stilling in 2011, who lost, and $200 to Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson in 2008, before her most recent election.