A Wisconsin Judge's Death Raises a Troubling Question: Was He a Victim of the Press?

updated 04/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Circuit Court Judge James W. Byers of Green Bay, Wis. returned home last February 8 and found a note from his wife. "I can't stand the attacks of the Press-Gazette," the note read in part. "I love you. I'm leaving." Several hours later police found Nancy Byers unconscious, lying face down in new-fallen snow and suffering gravely from overexposure. Later that night the judge collapsed in his home. Nancy Byers recovered, but her husband, after his third heart attack since 1962, was dead at 53.

The "attacks" Nancy Byers referred to were a series of articles on the Green Bay juvenile justice system that had been running for five months in the local paper, with her husband's court and his aide as the main targets. Since the judge's death a battle has raged in Green Bay between Byers' friends, who believe he was hounded to his grave by the paper, and friends of the Press-Gazette, who believe that its crusading editor did his journalistic duty. The debate has split to some extent along partisan lines; Judge Byers was in a tough reelection race when he died. But beyond its divisive impact on Green Bay, the case raises difficult questions about the powers—and the responsibilities—of a free press.

Less than two years ago the Press-Gazette was notable mainly for its benign hometown boosterism. But then a new editor was imported from the La Crosse, Wis. Tribune. Robert Gallagher, 46, a tough, hard-driving ex-Marine (as well as a Pulitzer Committee judge and an associate editor of American Heritage magazine), was admired for his belief that small-town newspapers have the same obligation as big-city or national publications to dig for stories about government abuse. Of P-G staffers who thought otherwise, he is said to have announced on his arrival: "I'm not inviting them to leave. I'm telling them."

Beginning last September the paper began accusing Judge Byers' administrative aide, Wayne Walters, of failing to hold prompt hearings to determine whether juveniles should be detained—thereby denying their rights. There were other charges as well, such as misusing the judge's signature stamp and endangering federal and state funding by sloppy paper work. Even editor Gallagher reportedly said: "It is not that big a story...except to a community that is totally unused to any kind of internecine controversy in its courthouse." Nevertheless the paper beat away at it—with nearly 100 editorials and increasingly breathless articles.

Then in January the Press-Gazette, reportedly under pressure from its legal department, ran a long statement retracting certain references to "illegality" in the series. Two weeks later a state special prosecutor announced he had found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of anyone in Judge Byers' court, though he left open the possibility that there were civil rights and other federal-level violations. The Press-Gazette continued to press its case. Stockbroker John Brogan, a longtime friend of Byers', claims: "One day someone would allege, the next day the 'allegation' became a 'charge,' and finally the 'charges' became 'facts.' "

When Byers died the outcry against the newspaper was fierce; three legislators took the floor of the state assembly to denounce Gallagher. State Rep. William Rogers called him "a headhunter...drunk with the power of the press." (Rogers had been named in an earlier Gallagher expose which found that state-issued telephone credit cards were being abused.) Gallagher was quoted as condemning his critics for their "rank, self-serving stupidity about the role of responsible newspapers in a free society." The Washington Post, which sometimes acts as if it had invented investigative reporting, noticed the Green Bay doings and suggested that some of the Press-Gazette's facts were wrong.

In Wisconsin the Byers case is being cited in attempts to pass a tough new privacy law barring publications from portraying anyone in a "false light" that a "reasonable person" would find "highly objectionable." The proposed law is decidedly ill-advised. The "false light" concept is so vague as to be meaningless; it might, for example, give Gallagher grounds to sue detractors like Rogers.

Both Gallagher and Byers had earned good, solid reputations. "Judge Byers was always very concerned about the kids who came up before him," says one attorney who knew him, "and maybe he wasn't as concerned as he should have been with procedures." As for Gallagher, reporters who worked with him in La Crosse insist he is "fair...sensitive...I wish there were more editors like him." A federal grand jury in Milwaukee, still poring over possible improprieties in Byers' court, may clarify whether the Press-Gazette's zeal was actually excessive. "I can't say any of the participants in this were saints," observes Joe Knaapen, one of several veteran reporters on the Press-Gazette who were recently fired. As for editor Gallagher, for the time being, he says, "I'm not sure I want to talk to any more reporters."

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