By Maya Shimizu Harris
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — After a proposed bill to protect Wyoming judges from intimidation floundered, lawmakers moved along a much simpler proposal on Tuesday that clarifies judges are protected under an existing intimidation law.
The first bill failed in a 6-7 vote, with one excused. It would have created a new felony offense — punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, up to 10 years of imprisonment, or both — for intimidating, harassing or retaliating against supreme court, district court, circuit court and chancery court judges, or their families, for their role in the legal system.
The Wyoming Judicial Branch supported the bill.
“Obviously we want to protect our judges,” Elisa Butler, state court administrator for the Wyoming Judicial Branch, said. “They are the ones who are supposed to be neutral parties, and we are trying to protect them for making the decisions that they need to make every day.”
But some lawmakers were concerned that if such protections were to be extended to judges in particular, then they should also be extended to other people who are also regularly threatened.
Many lawmakers themselves, as decision makers on often controversial legislation, are routinely subject to threats — Sheridan Republican Rep. Mark Jennings said that just in the past six months, his family has received “at least four threats.”
“Do you think we should include other classes of people in the same type of thing?” he asked.
Lawmakers considered the bill just a few weeks after a Maryland judge was killed in his driveway by a man whose divorce case the judge was presiding over — the judge had granted custody of the man’s children to their mother.
“That certainly is not here, but these are current and pressing dangers to our judiciary,” said Loretta Howieson Kallas, the Uinta County prosecuting attorney.
Judges aren’t the only people in the judicial system who are vulnerable.
Howieson Kallas asked the committee to extend the scope of the bill to all officers of the court, such as clerks, public defenders and prosecuting attorneys like herself.
“I would note that I don’t believe that there has been a moment in the last eight and a half years that I have not had an active death threat,” Howieson Kallas said. “It’s just part of my job.” (Lawmakers did end up adding an amendment to include municipal judges, but they voted down an amendment that would further broaden the protections to more officers of the court.)
In the end, though, lawmakers scrapped the bill, after which Buffalo Republican Rep. Barry Crago made a motion to add judges into existing statute that makes it a felony offense to intimidate jurors, witnesses and officers while they are fulfilling their duty.
The proposal, which ultimately passed on Tuesday in a 8-6 vote, is significantly pared back from the failed bill and simply adds the word “judge” to the statute. (Crago said that the word “officers” could be interpreted to include judges. But it’s not entirely clear, and he doesn’t personally read the law that way.)
“The last bill we talked about was obviously much broader, and it was a much bigger policy decision,” Crago said. “I don’t think this is much of a policy decision. It’s a clarification of an existing statute.”
Having cleared the last interim meeting of the Judiciary Committee, the bill will now go to the 2024 legislative session for consideration.