From Council to Counsel: Reflections of a Lawmaker Turned Law Student

At the time I applied for admission to law school, I had been serving on Racine, Wisconsin’s City Council for six years. Attorneys I knew told me that my experience as a legislator would help me with my legal studies. They were right, but I don’t think any of us considered that it would be a two-way street.

Before I go further, I should note that being an Alderman in Racine is a vastly different experience from serving on a council in a city like Chicago or Milwaukee. My job is most decidedly part time, as is the pay. The relative size of the jobs, however, isn’t the only thing that makes them different.

Chicago Alderman Proco Moreno recently illustrated this. Chick-fil-A’s CEO made public statements opposing gay marriage, which upset, among many others, Alderman Moreno. “Because of this man’s ignorance,” said Alderman Moreno, “I will now be denying Chick-fil-A’s permit to open a restaurant in the First Ward.” In Mr. Moreno’s world, this likely unconstitutional action will probably go unchallenged in any real way. In my world, I would get a rebuke from the City Attorney, a hammering in the local press, and probably a lawsuit.

The Chick-fil-A dustup brings out yet another difference between big-city and small town aldermen. Mr. Moreno is able to block the Chick-fil-A restaurant by using something called “aldermanic privilege,” which resembles a U.S. Senate hold. In 2008, I learned that Milwaukee had a similar privilege, and that it can lead to big problems. In Racine, the council sometimes gives greater weight to the opinions of the district alderman when making a decision because he or she best understands the needs of the district. It doesn’t come close to being a privilege, though. If I tried to block a building permit by claiming privilege, I would be laughed out of city hall.

That’s enough about big-city Aldermen run amok; let’s get back to the two-way street. As I said, my friends were right. My experiences really did help me in my first year. That’s not to say it was easy. (The only thing that might make law school easy is going through it twice, and I’m not sure even that would do it.) It wasn’t that I already knew some law, because I didn’t know much compared to the vastness of the 1L curriculum. I didn’t have any sort of head start on doctrine; it was subtler than that.

For instance, I was already comfortable making an argument in public, and, more often than I liked, being wrong. I was used to reading state laws, local ordinances, cases, plans, policies, and loads of other fairly dry material. This made reading for my classes much less daunting. I had to balance family, full-time work, and public service, so the juggling of several “top” priorities that is required for success in law school was nothing new to me.

Although being an alderman didn’t help much with learning doctrine, it was the doctrine I learned this past year that has really helped me to be a better alderman. Fortunately, I didn’t need law school to know not to pull a Moreno (and I certainly knew not to break the law). Again, it isn’t the obvious things where I see the difference; it is subtler than that.

Take due process, for example. Before, I understood the basics, and we had lawyers to make sure that our government provided it, and any laws we passed didn’t trample on it. Now, I understand better the interests that must be balanced when passing an ordinance that limits some for the benefit of others. I know what it means to consider how much process is due in a given situation. I still listen to our lawyers (a case where law school reinforced something I already knew), but I’m better able to appreciate and use their counsel.

It should come as no surprise that the one area where law school has helped the most is the understanding of just what the law is in a given situation. I was always the adventurous sort, so I would attempt to find this out on my own. I would come into city hall, a copy of a statute in hand, declaring, “See! This is what I was telling you about!” That was usually followed, quite quickly, by a correction from the lawyers. It seems I neglected to look for administrative law, case law, and attorney general opinions, among other things. Since learning about them, as well as the canons of construction, I have upped my batting average considerably. The canons alone are worth their weight in gold. I have a better understanding of the laws I read, and I do a much better job helping to write new ones.

It’s not just these two areas; my entire 1L year comes in handy from time to time. As elected officials, my colleagues and I are asked to make decisions on things that involve many areas of the law. We deal with contracts, tort claims, criminal law, due process concerns, property law, and, unfortunately, civil procedure (people like to sue cities) – often in the same meeting. The constitution, of course is always there; we took oaths to uphold it.

Speaking of my colleagues, I’d like to take time to clarify something. My thoughts on how law school has made me a better alderman should not be construed to mean those without legal education are somehow lesser public servants. One doesn’t need a legal background to craft good public policy, nor does a legal education prevent one from crafting very bad public policy (another case where law school reinforced something I already knew). All of us bring something different to the council chambers. Racine’s council has fifteen members, but only one lawyer and one law student, and we do just fine, thank you very much.

For me, public service transformed my interest in the law into a desire to study it. That study has led to a passion for the law that I’ve been able to channel back into my public service. I appreciate and understand each of them better because of the other. I am truly grateful that I have been able to experience both. I could have done either one without the other, but I’m glad I didn’t.


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