The retired Juneau County judge who was killed Friday in what authorities called an attack related to the judicial system “cared deeply” about doing his job well, was fair to all and treated everyone in his courtroom with respect, community members said.
John Roemer, 68, was a “brilliant legal scholar who devoted an incredible amount of time to doing the right thing,” said Scott Southworth, who was Juneau County district attorney from 2005 to 2013.
“I learned a great deal from him,” he said.
A 56-year-old man reportedly shot him in his home “based on some sort of court case or court cases,” Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said at a news conference Friday. The “targeted act” included other planned victims, Kaul said, although the attorney general did not identify them.
Law enforcement officers found Roemer dead when they entered his home in New Lisbon, then found the shooter in the basement with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was reported to be in critical condition, Kaul said Friday.
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Judge John Roemer presided over high-profile cases in Juneau County
Roemer was first elected to the Juneau County Circuit Court in 2004. Circuit court judges serve six-year terms, and Roemer was reelected in 2010 and 2016. In both elections he ran unopposed. Roemer resigned in August 2017, citing his wife’s declining health. She died the following year.
“I graciously wish to thank the citizens of the state of Wisconsin and the county of Juneau for giving me this precious opportunity to serve as their circuit court judge,” Roemer said in a letter to Gov. Scott Walker announcing his retirement. “It is a responsibility that, at times, I can barely fathom.”
In a statement released Saturday, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler said Roemer “was known by colleagues for his sharp legal mind and his willingness to share his time and knowledge with others. His work made a tremendous difference in the lives of many people in Juneau County and elsewhere in the state.”
During his time as judge, Roemer presided over several of the region’s high-profile cases, including one in which a religious sect leader was convicted of ordering a follower to hide a 90-year-old woman’s corpse on a toilet in her home for two months while he collected the dead woman’s Social Security payments.
Prior to becoming a judge, Roemer was a Juneau County assistant district attorney for 12 years. He also spent five years as an assistant state public defender in Baraboo, according to The Third Brancha Wisconsin court system publication.
In 2002, he retired from the US Army Reserves as a lieutenant colonel.
Roemer graduated from Hamline University Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1980. He married his wife, Vivian, that same year. They had three sons: Nathaniel, Jordan and Mark.
Roemer was heavily involved at his church, St. Paul’s Evangelical in Mauston
Roemer, who also went by “Jack,” was a longtime member of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mauston, where he served as the church council president for the last year and a half, Pastor Jasper Sellnow told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He was already a part of the church council when he stepped up to become president.
“More than just someone who’s got a good business mind or leadership mind, we want someone who has a spiritual mind and a heart who … Reflects God’s love,” Sellnow said. “That’s Jack.”
Roemer oversaw the church’s search for a third pastor and helped encourage members who had been disconnected from the church during the COVID-19 pandemic to come back, Sellnow said. Roemer also served as chairman of the church’s evangelism committee and was active in outreach to the community.
Sellnow remembered Roemer as someone who served with joy and was at church often. He said one of Roemer’s sons has a developmental disability and that he was supportive of other churchgoers with special needs and of their families. He said the whole community is grieving but that they would do well to remember what Roemer stood for.
“He just wanted other people to know there’s hope in a dark world when you have God,” the pastor said.
Roemer is remembered for his dedication to his job as a judge
Southworth said that while he was district attorney, he worked with Roemer daily.
“He was kind. He was passionate. He was empathetic,” said Southworth, who now works as a criminal defense lawyer and adoption lawyer in the Mauston and Wisconsin Dells area. “He cared deeply about doing the right thing on the bench.”
Roemer also stood large in the lives of people he met. Eva Woywod worked for 13 years as reporter and editor at The Messenger of Juneau County, covering Roemer’s courtroom. His sense of humor didn’t leave when he presided on the bench, Woywod, 54, said. In rural court, she said, sometimes the circumstances would border on the ridiculous and go on for hours. Her son, Kyle Roberts, would join her in court out of boredom. The two would sometimes make faces at each other as Roemer adjudicated.
“You’re sitting in court and you’re going through all those hearings it would be hard to keep a straight face after a while,” she said. “Sometimes, he would look up and wink at me.”
Roemer touched her life not just as one professional to another but as a judge to a victim. In 2007, Roemer sent her ex-husband to prison for domestic violence and sexual assault. Roemer always asked how her sons were doing.
“Jack was pretty instrumental in some chapters of my life,” she said. “He always went out of his way to send kind words to my sons. If my sons happen to be with me when I was in court, he always spent time with them and showed them his office in back where he had all his music. “
Roberts, 24 and a rock musician, loved the classics — Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin — and so did Roemer.
“I used to get picked on for liking that kind of music. A lot of my friends listened to Christian music and thought what I listened to was from the devil,” Roberts said. “I thought it was really cool to have this judge listening to the same stuff I was listening to.”
Roberts said Roemer was one of the people to encourage him to pursue his passion for music. “He would tell me to go for it and do what I wanted to do,” he said.
Roemer was part of a team in 2009 that traveled to Buffalo, New York, to observe a veterans court, which later led to establishing the first veterans court in Wisconsin, according to The Third Branch.
Southworth said he was “shocked and sickened” when he received a phone call Friday informing him of the situation.
“It is imperative that public officials in our justice system can do their jobs without fear of being harmed or threatened,” he said.
Southworth found comfort in the fact that Roemer was “a man of great faith” who was also passionately dedicated to his role as judge.
“We actually talked once about just the stress of being a judge,” he said. “I just expressed my concern for him personally because he was so dedicated and so dedicated, and spent so many hours working for the people.”
Chief Justice Ziegler said “the state’s judicial family is shocked and saddened by this tragedy. … Our deepest sympathy goes to Judge Roemer’s family at this time.”
Angela Kujak, the family court commissioner in Juneau County, called Roemer’s death unnerving, shocking and sad. She called him a “very great man” who was a mentor to all attorneys, treated everyone fairly and had a great sense of humor.
Kujak said she had no particular reason to think anyone would target Roemer, but said she “unfortunately” could understand why someone would target a judge in general.
“Judges have a very tough job and you have to make tough decisions and a lot of times people aren’t happy with those decisions,” she said. “It’s concerning. It’s scary. I appreciate that the courthouses I work in have great court security and that’s been a priority in many counties. But of course this happened in his home.”
Southworth also found it noteworthy that Roemer had experience as a defense attorney, prosecutor and judge.
“He was able to do what very few attorneys ever accomplish: to serve in three different critical capacities in the criminal justice system,” he said.
He said he valued the time he was able to spend with Roemer, especially when Southworth became a district attorney in Juneau County at a relatively young age.
“He would take the time to help me understand how to be a better prosecutor, how to be a better lawyer,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”
The legal community in Juneau County is close-knit and, despite the loss, Southworth expects everyone will rally together and “demonstrate how much we value respecting others and just celebrating (Roemer’s) life of public service.”
Reporters Elliot Hughes with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Alan Hovorka with USA TODAY Network-Wisconsin contributed to this report.
Contact Kelli Arseneau at (920) 213-3721 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @ArseneauKelli. Contact Chris Mueller at 920-996-7267 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @AtChrisMueller.