Don’t Ask a Judge to Rule for You and Then Send Him a Death Threat

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From Sovereignty Joeseph Helmueller Sovereign Freeman v. Anderson, decided Wednesday by Seventh Circuit Judges Frank Easterbrook, Michael Brennan, and Thomas L. Kirsch:

Dismissal of a lawsuit, although a severe sanction, is sometimes warranted. The district court properly dismissed this suit filed by Sovereignty Joeseph Helmueller Sovereign Freeman as a sanction for sending death threats to the court. We thus affirm.

In this case, Helmueller sued officers and medical providers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleges that, while he was a pre-trial detainee at St. Croix County Jail in Wisconsin, officers attacked him, broke his shoulder, and ignored his requests for medical treatment. Helmueller was later transported to a medical center where, he continues, staff ignored his request to treat his shoulder injury; instead they restrained and medicated him without his consent.

The lawsuit did not last long. After an assistant attorney general filed a notice of appearance on behalf of the officers, Helmueller objected to the attorney’s involvement in the case. In doing so, he threatened the judge and the President in writing:

Plaintiff demands the court show cause for Defendants representation by the WI Atty General and or the WI Dept of Justice. The Defendants have no right to be represented by the WI Attorney General or the WI Dept of Justice in this matter. Cut your backwards ass bullshit or you will start losing family members and the President of the United States will wind up dead! Stop playing games I demand justice not tyranny. Sec 1983 says “shall be liable” stop protecting those who violated the law and my rights.

The officers then moved to dismiss the case as a sanction for Helmueller’s threats. Helmueller responded that he did not intend to threaten any public official. The court disagreed, finding that Helmueller’s statements were threatening and impermissible. It also ruled that dismissal was the appropriate sanction to punish Helmueller’s behavior and to deter similar misconduct in his other pending lawsuits.

A district court has “inherent authority to manage judicial proceedings and to regulate the conduct of those appearing before it, and pursuant to that authority may impose appropriate sanctions to penalize and discourage misconduct.” In appropriate circumstances, this authority empowers the district court to dismiss a case with prejudice. We have thus affirmed dismissals as a sanction for threatening violence or other insubordination that disables the judiciary from functioning. See Castillo v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. (7th Cir. 1991) (affirming dismissal where plaintiff’s counsel threatened violence against opposing counsel); see also Donelson v. Hardy (7th Cir. 2019) (affirming dismissal based on plaintiff’s willful disobedience of discovery rules); Secrease v. W. & S. Life Ins. Co. (7th Cir. 2015). (affirming dismissal based on plaintiff’s falsification of evidence)….

[I]t is hard to see [Helmueller’s] statement, “Cut your backwards ass bull shit or you will start losing family members and the President of the United States will wind up dead,” as anything other than a threat of murder…. [And] a lesser sanction [than dismissal] was neither needed nor feasible. As the district court explained, Helmueller did not need a warning to know not to threaten murder or that doing so could impede the judiciary. Additionally, Helmueller would be undeterred by a financial penalty: He began the suit asking for (and receiving) leave to sue in forma pauperis because, he assured the court, he is impoverished; thus he is impervious to fines. Dismissal was therefore a proper sanction.

Finally, Helmueller argues that the district court abused its discretion because the First Amendment protected his statements. But the First Amendment does not shield from criminal sanctions threats of murder. And even speech that may not be criminalized is subject to the lesser opprobrium of a judicial sanction when it occurs during and threatens to derail litigation, as here….

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