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State Bar governor criticizes money spent defending rule change

Steve Levine

Steve Levine

The State Bar of Wisconsin paid a high-powered attorney $27,688 to argue for a controversial rule change that would allow its Board of Governors to remove a member.

The money was paid to Bobbi Howell, a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, for work done on behalf of the bar between October and January. This included drafting a memorandum and speaking at a public hearing on the rule change held before the state Supreme Court on Jan. 21.

Steve Levine, a BOG member who filed a petition in opposition of the rule change, said the amount is a “waste.”

It was not immediately clear if the bar would have hired Howell if Levine had not challenged the bylaw and rule change petition.

“Even if I hadn’t been the person … who had filed the petition,” Levine said. “As a member of the Board of Governors, if I found out the board had spent a huge amount of money … I would say ‘what a waste of money.’”

Bar spokeswoman Andrea Gage on Tuesday confirmed the amount paid to Howell. She said the decision whether to hire an outside attorney depends on the situation, though the bar does not have an attorney on staff to represent the bar for matters such as a Supreme Court petition.

Gage also said that the bar does not always need counsel to work on Supreme Court rule petitions, especially if the proposal is not contentious.

The bar is asking the Supreme Court to change its rules so they come in line with a change to the bar’s bylaws that the BOG approved in June. Under the bylaw, 39 of the 52 sitting governors would have to vote to remove a governor.

Levine voted against the BOG measure and is opposing the bar’s petition, as well as asking state justices to review and invalidate the bylaw. He has said he takes issue with a clause that explains that a governor can be removed if he or she “engages in conduct which is contrary to the best interest of the State Bar.”

The justices have not yet voted on Levine or the bar’s petitions, though in January they expressed concerns that the change and bylaw would give the BOG too broad of power to remove someone that doesn’t agree with the majority.

Levine has been a vocal opponent of what he sees as reckless spending by the bar, be it for out-of-town meetings or the cost of meals provided to BOG members when they meet. He pointed out that the BOG is set to vote in April on a dues increase for the first time in nine years, and that any amount of money could be used in a better way.

“I’m not objecting because of me,” Levine said, but rather “because I think it’s a waste of membership money.”

Howell did not immediately return a phone call Wednesday.

The bar has said it passed the bylaw change and introduced the rule petition to give the BOG the ability to remove one of its own when something serious arises – such as a governor committing a crime.

State Bar President Patrick Fiedler insisted during the Jan. 21 public hearing that stifling dissenters is “not the intent” of the new bylaw.

The court’s next rules conference is March 21, and the issue is slated to be discussed at that time.

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