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The Chief: Clark County

Judge Bruce “the Chief” Bielfus was an advocate for transparency in Wisconsin courts.

Bruce Bielfus
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, #115806

When you see the proceedings of a Wisconsin trial on television or in the newspapers, you can thank UW¬Madison grad and former Wisconsin chief justice Bruce Beilfuss ’36, LLB’38 for the view of open court.

Known popularly as “the Chief,” Beilfuss, a native of Withee in Wisconsin’s Clark County, was an early and important advocate for having public cameras in the courtroom. “The public will have a better concept of how cases are tried,” he argued. He first allowed the media to film his court during a murder trial in 1962, and when he was elected to the Wisconsin supreme court the next year, he was in the position to encourage open trials across the state.

Beilfuss came to the UW to study economics, and after he received his law degree, he returned home to launch a private practice. He won his first elective office in 1941 when he was made district attorney of Abbotsford, Wisconsin, but he resigned the post in 1943 to join the U.S. Navy during World War II. He entered one of the most dangerous branches of the service — commanding a patrol torpedo boat in the South Pacific’s famed “mosquito fleet.” Nearly a fifth of all PT boats were lost during the war.

After the war, Beilfuss was appointed a judge by Governor Oscar Rennebohm 1911 and established a reputation for expertise in criminal law. He was elected to the supreme court in 1963 and again in 1973, rising to chief justice in 1976.

“Here is a man truly of the common law.”

“What emerges from an analysis of his judicial work product is the conviction that here is a man truly of the common law, a case analyst, a respecter of precedent in the best tradition,” wrote Robert Boden, the dean of Marquette University’s law school. “If a word can describe the contribution of Justice Beilfuss to 20 years of Wisconsin jurisprudence, that word would be balance.”

In addition to his trial work, Beilfuss also left a legacy in court structure. He helped to reorganize the state’s county and circuit courts, and to create its appellate court system. He left the supreme court after completing his term in 1983, having reached the mandatory retirement age, and he passed away in 1986.

Thank you, Clark County, for the Chief — a patriot, a judicial reformer, and a tireless advocate for open government.

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