On Saturday, December 19, former Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, died after battling pancreatic cancer. She was 87. Just two ways she was like another famous, short, tough, trailblazing Jewish jurist: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Abrahamson, the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 1930s, grew up in New York City. She graduated magna cum laude from NYU with her bachelor’s degree in 1953. Three years later, she graduated first in her class from Indiana Law School; she was also the only woman.
She met her husband Seymour in Indiana; they moved to Madison in the early 1960s, where Abrahamson earned her S.J.D. from UW Law in 1962. Thereafter, she became the first female lawyer at the Madison law firm La Follette, Sinykin, Doyle & Anderson. She was named a partner within a year. All throughout the time she was in practice, she also taught at UW Law.
Under Wisconsin Law, the governor possesses extremely broad power to issue any order that he or she deems necessary to protect lives and property during a state of emergency. When responding to an outbreak of a communicable disease, the governor has the specific power to prohibit public gatherings in any place within the state and for any period of time while the emergency is ongoing. The source of this authority is the power granted to the governor under the Emergency Management Act, which places a duty on the governor to issue orders coordinating the state’s response to a disaster, and the power granted to the Secretary of the Department of Health Services to issue orders forbidding public gatherings during an epidemic. As the top executive branch official in the State of Wisconsin, Governor Evers has both the statutory authority to direct the state’s emergency response efforts and the constitutional authority to make full use of the power of the state’s administrative departments.
On April 6, the Wisconsin Supreme Court — its members meeting under emergency procedures intended to protect their own health — issued an order that had the practical effect of requiring Wisconsin voters who had not already received an absentee ballot to visit a polling place on April 7 and vote in person if they wished to cast a ballot in the spring election.
The result of the Court’s ruling in Wisconsin Legislature v. Evers was to place Wisconsin voters in an untenable position. The ruling disenfranchised anyone who wished to shelter at home in order to avoid possible exposure to Covid-19, a deadly communicable disease, if that person lacked either a computer, internet access, a scanner for making a digital copy of their ID, or a witness to verify their absentee ballot. All of these prerequisites were necessary before a Wisconsin voter could obtain and cast an absentee ballot whilst still sheltering in place. The majority opinion was clear: for anyone who fell into this category, the price of casting a ballot was risking exposure to Covid-19.
The majority opinion in Wisconsin Legislature v. Evers has nothing to do with defending the Rule of Law, and it is a mistake to characterize it in that fashion. There is nothing in any law passed by the Wisconsin legislature that requires the result announced by the Court. Indeed, had the Wisconsin Supreme Court truly intended to uphold the longstanding statutory scheme relating to government powers in response to an outbreak of communicable disease, the Court would have arrived at a contrary result.
The State of Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, has been engaged in a struggle to contain the spread of a coronavirus known as Covid-19. On March 12, 2020, Governor Tony Evers issued Executive Order 72, declaring a public health emergency in Wisconsin. This order was part of a series of executive actions taken by Governor Evers and other executive branch officials in order to address public health and safety concerns during the spread of this deadly communicable disease. On March 24, 2020, the Secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Andrea Palm, acting at the direction of Governor Evers, issued Emergency Order 12 (the “Safer-at-Home Order”). That order directed all individuals in Wisconsin to shelter at home, unless engaged in essential activities, until April 24, 2020, or until such time as a superseding directive took effect.
2019 was a memorable year for those interested in Wisconsin’s water resources. During his January 2019 “State of the State” address, Governor Tony Evers declared it the “Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin,” making water a primary focus of his first year in office. Around the same time, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced the creation of a water quality task force to study water contamination issues. Shortly thereafter, I wrote a post describing a shorthand “top ten” list of issues for the administration and the task force to consider. In no particular order, my list included lead laterals, PFAS and other emerging contaminants, nutrient pollution, groundwater contamination and private wells, Great Lakes diversions, CAFO regulation, the DNR, infrastructure, high capacity wells and groundwater drawdown, and wetlands protection.
But now 2020 has arrived. What were the tangible results of the “Year of Clean Drinking Water”? Many promising efforts are underway and the state has made significant progress in some areas, but much remains to be done. The Governor’s declaration and the Speaker’s task force brought much needed public attention to water quality issues, but it would be a shame if that intense focus fades with the turning of the calendar. Governor Evers recognizes this, admitting in a recent interview that he knows the work will take much more than a year. And he expects Wisconsinites to support it in the longer term: “People like to have clean drinking water,” he said. “Who doesn’t want it? Who doesn’t need it?” Yet in his 2020 “State of the State” address Evers mentioned water only once, a late reference to “getting PFAS out of our water” as part of a list of things yet to be accomplished.
Here are the specifics of what happened last year:
Kelli Thompson admits she wasn’t entirely eager to become a lawyer, particularly the kind involved in courtroom work. As a student at Marquette Law School, “I probably did a very, very good job of staying far, far away from any kind of trial advocacy or litigation type of class. I think my thought was I would get the J.D. behind my name and just do something else. The something else, I have no idea what that was going to be.”
But, she said during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall on October 15, 2019, “In my third year of law school, I think it was killing my father that I was not even considering going into a courtroom.”
Her father, by the way, is Tommy G. Thompson, who, at that time in the mid-1990s, was governor of Wisconsin.
Kelli Thompson recalled, “At that point in time, he certainly wasn’t pushy, but he said, ‘Before you decide you hate it (courtroom work), you at least have to try it.’ . . . He said Marquette has wonderful clinical programs.” He told his daughter to pick one. “I said, ‘OK, you pick for me because I don’t know what I want to do’ . . . He said, ‘There’s no doubt, public defender, you should go there.’
[The following is a guest post from Daniel Suhr ’08, a prior guest alumni contributor to the Blog.]
On June 25th the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down its decision in Koschkee v. Evers, 2019 WI 76, which is in many ways a rerun of questions raised in Coyne v. Walker, 2016 WI 38. Coyne was, to put it mildly, a jurisprudential mess: “Our mandate resulted from a one-justice lead opinion, a two-justice concurrence, and a one-justice concurrence, all of which agreed only on the outcome of the case” (Koschkee, ¶ 5), plus a principal dissent representing the views of three justices, and a secondary dissent representing the views of only two justices.
Chief Justice Roggensack’s Koschkee majority (which commanded four votes on everything except ¶ 17) briefly discussed the stare decisis weight of Coyne in an early footnote, stating, “When we are asked to overturn one of our prior decisions, lead opinions that have no common legal rationale with their concurrences are troublesome.” (¶ 8, n.5.) They are troublesome, the Court continues, because it is hard to run their rationale through the traditional stare decisis analysis when there is no definitive rationale to analyze.
Justice Bradley’s dissent, by contrast, says the majority “throws the doctrine of stare decisis out the window.” (¶ 62.) To the Court’s argument from the lack of a common rationale in Coyne, she replies, “[T]he split nature of the Coyne opinion is of no import. The mandate of Coyne was clear despite the fractured nature of the opinions. Although the four justices in the majority subscribed to differing rationales, they agreed on the essential conclusion….” (¶ 73.)
Currently before the State Legislature are bills regarding the State Public Defender private bar appointment rate. Currently the rate is $40 per hour (the lowest in the nation), but the bill is proposing to raise the rate to $70 per hour. Recently a petition to the Wisconsin Supreme Court attempted to get the Supreme Court to raise the private bar rate of the public defender to $100 per hour. While the Supreme Court acknowledged the current rate as woefully inadequate, it did not take action regarding the public defender appointed rate, although it did raise the court-appointed rate effective next year to $100 per hour for all court-appointed lawyers.
The issue regarding the lack of attorneys willing to take SPD appointments to represent the indigent has picked up significant media attention and has prompted one lawsuit. The discussion that the State is failing to fulfill constitutional obligations to its citizens is important. Why did it take a “constitutional crisis” to reach this point? The criminal defense attorney is not just politically unpopular but can often be viewed as a reason elections have been lost. Continue reading “Second-Class Treatment of Criminal Defense Lawyers”
On December 14, 2018, outgoing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law three bills that were rapidly passed by the Republican-held state legislature during an extraordinary session following the November 7, 2018 election that resulted in Democrats winning each statewide elected seat. Along with serving various other goals of the Republican legislative majority, the trio of so-called “lame duck” laws were designed to curb the powers of incoming Governor Tony Evers’ administration before he took office in the following ways:
Transfer control over leadership appointments to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (“WEDC”) from the executive branch to the legislature until September 2019. Then-candidate Evers campaigned on disbanding the WEDC.
Grant the legislature power to intervene in lawsuits in circumvention of the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office when state statutes are challenged. This provision of the law provides for the use of taxpayer dollars to pay private lawyers to defend the interests of the Republican legislative majority.
Give the legislature the ability to sign off on and decide how to spend court settlements – a power traditionally held by the Attorney General’s Office.
Provide the legislature the power to permanently block any regulations written by the state’s numerous administrative agencies, which are part of the executive branch.
Require the executive branch to get permission from the legislature to make any policy changes within the state’s health care and public benefit programs.
A Warren Court cornerstone has been “remastered and upgraded,” as they say, by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a case that has riled the waters nationally. In Brady v. Maryland (1963), the Warren Court held that prosecutors must disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. No hiding the ball. Over fifty years of case law, however, has occluded the rule with sundry conditions and qualifications that obscure its modest disclosure provision. More time is spent describing the ball than looking for it.
In State v. Wayerski (2019 WI 11), the Wisconsin Supreme Court scraped off Brady’s barnacles, overruled fifty years of precedent, and held that prosecutors must provide the defense with any information that is exculpatory or impeaching — even if the defense could have found it as easily as the prosecutor. Continue reading “Full(er) Disclosure: Wisconsin Invigorates the Brady Rule”
As discussed in Part I, I have gathered data on the Wisconsin prison inmates who are 70 or older. Out of an initial set of 299 inmates, I selected a representative subset of 100 in order to take a closer look at the inmates’ most recent convictions. Thirty-eight of the 100 were convicted of more than one offense in their most recent felony cases. In these cases, I focused only on the conviction that resulted in the longest sentence.
Nationally, the number of senior citizens in prison has grown dramatically in recent years. In Wisconsin, for instance, the number of prisoners aged 60 or older grew from just 202 (or 1.2 percent of the total) in 2000 to 1,231 (5.4 percent) by the end of 2016. Such increases should be of public concern for a number of reasons, including the exceptionally high costs of incarcerating the elderly. To a great extent, these costs are related to the prevalence of chronic illnesses and physical and mental disabilities among older inmates. One national study estimated that the average cost of imprisoning a senior is about twice the overall average. In general, it is less costly to manage chronic health problems in the community than in prisons, which are not designed to function as assisted living facilities, and which tend to be located in rural areas at some distance from specialized treatment providers.
Fiscal and humanitarian concerns alike have sparked considerable interest in recent years in “compassionate release” and other mechanisms that might hasten the return of elderly prisoners to the community. On the other hand, there are also countervailing concerns that early release might endanger the public or depreciate the seriousness of the underlying criminal offenses. On both sides of the debate, there seems a tendency to rely on unexamined stereotypes about who the old folks in prison are—the frail, harmless grandparent serving an excessively harsh sentence for a long-ago offense, versus the confirmed predator whose dangerousness can never be fully erased by age.
“It requires little knowledge of human nature to anticipate that those who had long been regarded as an inferior and subject race would, when suddenly raised to the rank of citizenship, be looked upon with jealousy and positive dislike, and that state laws might be enacted or enforced to perpetuate the distinctions that had before existed.” – Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 306 (1879)
As ominously foreshadowed by the Supreme Court in 1879, current state and federal laws and practices continuously present disadvantages to people of color. Removed from enslavement and the oppressive nature of the Jim Crow Era, today many of the participants in our justice system and in politics are blind to discrepancies within this nation’s criminal justice system and erroneously believe that the black defendant enjoys the same rights as the white defendant. The black defendant is seldom given a jury that racially represents him or her, and this lack of representation is a product of case precedent, judicial reasoning, and discriminatory practices. In Wisconsin, these discriminatory practices take the form of both state and federal jury pooling procedures. As such, the purpose of this blog post is to draw attention to the disproportionate jury pooling practices in Wisconsin circuit courts as well as federal district courts in our state, and to provide a forum for debate on this important issue.
Federal Jury Pooling in Wisconsin and the Depleted African American Voting Population
The right to a jury is so critical to the makeup of our system of justice that the Constitution mentions juries in four different sections. However, while individuals have a constitutional right to a jury, the pooling and selection of such juries is not always constitutionally executed. Both the Eastern and Western District Courts of Wisconsin have jury pooling practices that raise constitutional concerns due to the disproportional impact that those practices have on black criminal defendants. Continue reading “Racial Discrimination in Wisconsin Jury Pool Practices”
Next week from November 5th to November 11th, Wisconsin is celebrating its Startup Wisconsin Week. Cities across the entire state of Wisconsin will be hosting programs and events geared toward helping Wisconsin grow its startup community. For the entrepreneurial-minded, this week provides an array of opportunities to network, learn tricks of the trade, and become more involved in the startup process. For transitionally focused attorneys, this week offers a variety of opportunities to meet new potential clients and learn more about how entrepreneurs can affect Wisconsin.