WAUKESHA — Charles Wilkie, a former Marquette professor, was summoned to jury duty in Waukesha County early this year. He was out of town and asked for deferment, which is when he was told he could be exempt from jury duty because he was over age 75. But Wilkie said he wanted to serve, and scheduled to do so in August.
When Wilkie showed up for jury duty on August 23rd, he said he was surprised to find those working at the Waukesha County Courthouse and very few of his fellow jurors were masked or practicing social distancing. So he left.
Wilkie received a letter from Judge Jennifer Dorow in early September ordering him to appear in court on October 5th to explain why he "deliberately disregarded an Order of the Court." Wilkie faced up to a $500 fine.
In a letter dated September 13th, Wilkie wrote to Dorow explaining why he left:
I was shocked when I arrived at the courthouse to observe that none of the guards at the entrance were masked. My shock became even greater when I entered the jury assembly room to discover that none of the personnel were masked and that the potential jurors were not socially distanced. I told the personnel there that I was not comfortable in this situation and their response was to sit down and listen. I very unhappily and uncomfortable did so. To my mind the potential jurors were too close together. We were told that there were about 40 prospective jurors in the room; only three of us were masked. At the conclusion of the video presentation, after some announcements, we were asked if there were questions. I asked why the people were not masked and that I was not comfortable with that. To me, the response was unacceptable. I do not remember the exact words but in essence it was we do not require masks. That was not acceptable to me, so I told the personnel that I was leaving and that I wanted to claim the over 75 exemption from now on."
Wilkie returned to court on Tuesday, October 5th, again with very few people wearing masks. He argued that he truly did want to serve, but felt unsafe and didn't know how long it would be before someone showed up to excuse him.
"I went up to the person who seemed to be in charge and I said, 'this is not safe I want to leave.' She said 'that's up to the judge.' I said, 'I don't think it's safe, I want to leave, and goodbye,'" Wilkie said in court on Tuesday. "I also have a responsibility to ensure my own safety and the safety of those I care about."
The judge told him that he was not permitted to leave the juror orientation unless he was excused by the judge, and that if he had waited he would have been excused.
"Any concerns would have needed to be addressed with the judge," Judge Dorow said. "And in fact, there was another juror that expressed similar concerns and ultimately I excused based upon their concerns."
Judge Dorow said she and her fellow Waukesha County Judges decided to unanimously to return to the pre-COVID way of holding court earlier this year. The Waukesha County Courthouse does not require masks.
"The premise is that personal freedom and choice, which I as a court official took an oath to uphold... what I honor and what I protect is the liberty of the citizens of Waukesha County to make their decisions that best meet their needs," Judge Dorow said in court on Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends mask-wearing indoors, regardless of vaccine status, in areas of substantial or high transmission.
Judge Dorow said that Wilkie deciding to leave the juror orientation could have caused what she calls a form of chaos.
"Not chaos because there are people running and nothing can be done, but a disruption of the very bedrock of our judicial system," she said.
Although Wilkie did not want to end the hearing with a personal comment and declined to speak to the press after, he did say the following in his September letter to Judge Dorow:
The absence of masks and social distance in the Waukesha County Court House is astounding to me. A responsibility of the public servants is to keep people safe. This is not being done. That is why I left. I will be in Court October 5th, I hope that my safety will be considered and that people in attendance will be masked and socially distanced.
Ultimately Judge Dorow did not issue a fine, but instead required Wilkie to serve as juror sometime in the next year. They agreed on a date in August of 2022.