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Levine becomes 51st president

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Leadership Change: Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson swears in Steven A. Levine as the 51st president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. Levine ran last year as a write-in candidate and won on a platform supporting a voluntary bar, bar examination equity and enhanced representation of nonresident lawyers on the State Bar board.

Photo by Tony Anderson

In a ceremony replete with humor and a pinch of poignancy, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson swore Steven A. Levine in as the 51st president of the State Bar of Wisconsin last Thursday in Madison.

Levine, of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, ran for the position on a number of issues that will likely put him squarely at odds with the high court, such as pushing for a voluntary bar and eliminating Wisconsin’s diploma privilege, so that law students who graduate from the University of Wisconsin or Marquette law schools will have to take a bar exam, as do graduates from other law schools.

In her opening remarks, Abrahamson told a ballroom full of lawyers, judges, Levine’s family and friends, and bar staffers about Levine’s background, noting that he attended the Georgetown University Law Center before returning to his native Wisconsin and passing a bar exam here.

“He took the Wisconsin bar, and has never recovered from it. Steve, get over it,” she quipped. “I say that because I can josh with him, and he with me.”

Quite possibly referring to Levine’s previous efforts to bring back a voluntary bar to Wisconsin — including suing the high court in federal court on the issue back in the mid- to late 1980s — Abrahamson told the group, “Steve Levine is principled. He has firm beliefs, and he is willing to stand up, or sit down, as the case may be over the years, and fight for them. And if he loses, he is not discouraged … unfortunately.”

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Warm Welcome: State Bar leaders stand and applaud Steven A. Levine, following his swearing in as State Bar President. Past President Michelle Behnke and President-elect Thomas Basting Sr. rise with the audience to welcome the State Bar’s newest leader.

Photo by Tony Anderson

After the laughter subsided, she continued, “He comes back. That’s what you’re supposed to do. I’ve been on the same side of fights with Steve Levine, and I’ve been on opposite sides. And it’s all been interesting and fun. Don’t change.”

After taking the oath, Levine told the crowd that he has known Abrahamson for 30 years. He even exercised his “vast political power,” writing a letter in 1976 to former Gov. Patrick Lucey in support of her appointment to the court. He still has a copy of that letter.

At the time, Levine had recently served as a law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Robert W. Hansen, whom he characterized as a wonderful mentor. Hansen was also a prolific letter-writer, according to Levine. He wrote this advice in a letter to him many years ago — advice Levine has tried his best to live by: “Live your life like a turtle. Move slowly and steadily. Have a hard shell. And every once in a while, stick your neck out and take a chance.”

Levine thanked those who voted for him, such as proponents of a voluntary bar and nonresident lawyers. He pointed to a number of issues he hopes to highlight in the coming year — a voluntary bar, bar examinations and nonresident lawyer representation on the State Bar board. He said that these and other issues were important to him, and urged, “I hope to work as hard as I can on those issues, and if anybody who voted for me ever thinks I’m ever slacking off or not fulfilling my campaign pledge, remind me.”

He additionally thanked his co-workers, notably attorney Gary Evenson, who served as emcee of the ceremony, and who has been his colleague at the PSC for 30 years. Also on the list of kudos was Executive Director George C. Brown and the rest of the State Bar staff, as well as other bar leaders.

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He also thanked his family, noting that his parents were immigrants. In particular, his father arrived in the U.S. in 1929, leaving poverty and suffering in Europe only to be greeted by the Great Depression and its hardships. His father frequently worked two jobs, seven days a week, so that Levine and his older sister would have a better life. His mother also worked out of the home to help the family get by. Both parents died while Levine was still a child, so that his sister was left to see him through until adulthood. She used many “extrajudicial remedies” to keep him in line, he joked to the group.

Along these lines, Levine thanked his city, state and nation for the opportunity to serve as bar president. He said he is not a “knee-jerk, flag-waving patriot” — yet, sometimes when he thinks of all the opportunities he has had, as well as the relatively comfortable lifestyles many have in America, compared to the poverty in Europe that his father had described to him as a boy, he cannot help but think about how lucky he was to be born in the U.S. This is reinforced b
y the high numbers of people who are trying to make the U.S. their home, every day.

Levine closed on a lighter note, telling the group that he looks forward to working with Abrahamson. He told the group that, about a decade ago after losing a case before the high court, she had told him in jest that, “The Supreme Court is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get.”

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