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State Supreme Court agrees to consider abolishing mandatory bar (UPDATE)

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court breathed life into a contentious petition to abolish mandatory participation in the State Bar of Wisconsin.

The justices voted 4-3 to move forward on the proposal attorneys Steve Levine and James Thiel filed with the court. Court Commissioner Julie Rich will now compile a comprehensive history of the mandatory versus voluntary bar issue to present to the court, prior to scheduling a public hearing.

In June, the court denied an initial version of Levine and Thiel’s petition on the grounds that it wasn’t filed in the proper form and lacked substance. The petitioners re-filed to include more specifics, such as language that creates a voluntary association for licensed attorneys, to be known as the State Bar of Wisconsin.

While the majority of justices Thursday said the petitioners should have their day in court, some questioned if the effort is going to be little more than a time-consuming charade.

At least three justices openly said they favor the mandatory structure of the bar.

“As I sit here, I can’t imagine voting to abolish the integrated bar,” said Justice Patrick Crooks. “I don’t have a totally closed mind, but it’s about three-quarters closed.”

Justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley also said they are staunch advocates of the integrated bar structure.

However, Bradley said, she wants to reserve judgment until she has heard all viewpoints.

“It’s a tough balance for me,” Bradley said. “I don’t want a charade, but I don’t want to cut people off either.”

Despite the candid comments by the justices, Levine said he isn’t discouraged and realized that change of this magnitude could take decades.

“I don’t think anyone’s minds will be changed at all,” he said. “It’s like with most court cases, people make up their minds in the beginning as to how things will come out and then find reasons to justify it.”

But Levine said there are legitimate reasons that the mandatory bar should be abolished.

“The bar doesn’t qualify as an integrated bar under Supreme Court rules because it doesn’t regulate the legal profession,” he said.

Thirty-two years after the bar was first made mandatory, a federal district court declared the mandate unconstitutional in 1988. That decision was overturned in 1992, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court reinstated the mandatory bar, with the lone dissent coming from Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Abrahamson questioned if she would take the same position today, but said it is worth finding out where the court stands, despite it being a potentially “painful” process.

“I would have a hearing,” she said on the issue.

The court did not set a date Thursday to discuss Rich’s research in open administrative conference.

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