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Lawyer transitions from athlete to attorney

By: dmc-admin//August 11, 2008//

Lawyer transitions from athlete to attorney

By: dmc-admin//August 11, 2008//

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ImageJoseph R. Thomas has spent the majority of his professional life either on the court, or in it. After graduating from Marquette University in 1970, Thomas spent two years playing professional basketball with the Phoenix Suns. But he came to realization that he wanted to practice with attorneys rather than future NBA legends Connie Hawkins and Paul Silas.

So Thomas earned his law degree in 1975 and for the last 33 years has honed his legal skills in private, corporate and governmental practice. Since 2001, he has served as Chief Legal Counsel for the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, which includes an annual contract for legal services with the Wisconsin State Fair. Thomas took time to sit down with Wisconsin Law Journal reporter Jack Zemlicka in late July to discuss his most unusual cases, how the resignation of Jack Fischer has impacted his job, and what he thinks of cream puffs.

Wisconsin Law Journal: You joined the Department of Commerce seven years ago2. How did you get involved with State Fair?

Joseph R. Thomas: The department has a memorandum of understanding to provide legal services with the State Fair Park, anything from contracts to small claims. It’s a minimal amount of hours, but they will call me when things come up. My agreement calls for about 14 hours per month, but on average, I put in 8 to 10. If a vendor needs a license to sell liquor on the grounds, I’ll research it and tell them what I think, or what certain items they market are taxable.

WLJ: Have you ever dealt with any significant legal problems associated with the fair?

Thomas: We had a contract with an individual who ran the racetrack and he expanded the seating capacity, which was not in his lease, but he wanted recompense from State Fair Park. Well, we said that was a voluntary act on his part and it was a gift to the park as it were. He wanted to take it to court and we said, you are really benefiting from the improvement. You’re contracted for a certain number of seats and that’s what State Fair is going to compensate you for. He finally saw the wisdom of our ways and kind of gave up the issue.

WLJ: How often do you get down to State Fair?

Thomas: I haven’t been to the fair since I left Milwaukee about 20 years ago. They invited me a couple of times to come down, but I didn’t want to get involved in the special treatment thing. Some of my children have been down there, but I’m more connected to Madison now.

WLJ: Aren’t you missing out on the cream puffs?

Thomas: [Laughs] I never really got into them since I’m a diabetic and I try to watch that kind of stuff. Invariably when you go, you have to try at least one though, right? That’s the real draw from the concession standpoint.

WLJ: A more significant portion of your job deals with enforcement of building codes for the state. What is the worst thing you’ve seen?

Thomas: We’ve had some groups who for religious reasons don’t comply with civil law in a great deal of cases. We always err on the side of health, as opposed to some religious tradition. We try not to tread on those rights, but it happens sometimes. It doesn’t get violent, but it can become confrontational at times. If a person refuses to allow our inspector to come in, it’s my job to go to the local court and prepare an affidavit for a warrant for inspection. We have yet to enforce them because they know the force of law is behind us.

WLJ: Your department is also responsible for investigating accidents and safety violations. What’s the most unusual thing you’ve seen?

Thomas: Actually an accident occurred a couple of years ago where a surgeon hit his head on a waterslide and was rendered incapable of performing surgery, which was a lifelong endeavor for him. I think it was one of those parks in the Dells. He sued for not only pain and suffering, but also loss of future earnings, which for a surgeon could, over 10 to 20 years, easily get into the millions of dollars. They called on our people to testify as to looking at the slide, which was not in compliance with safety codes. That was of great help to the plaintiff’s side. But as far as the approval of the plans when they left us, everything was copasetic.

WLJ: So did you get to personally inspect the waterslide?

Thomas: (Laughs) No. I’m a little too busy for all that.

WLJ: How has the recent resignation of Department Secretary Jack Fischer impacted your job?

Thomas: People are more scrutinizing. There was a big to-do about him and his administrative assistant traveling to foreign lands. I saw all the records and it was all relatively innocuous. That’s the way he did business and the press wants to make this a scandalous affair. Every time I turn around somebody wants to know where they spent the night and who paid the bills. There is still some cleaning up that has to be done.

WLJ: Prior to going to law school, you spent 1970-72 playing professional basketball. What was it that experience like?

Thomas: The biggest thing I noticed was the increase in scheduling. There are 26 games in college and 82 in the pro season. Being on the road for two weeks became exhausting.

People don’t see that constant grind, they see the limelight and as soon as the game is over everybody goes home. But we go back to the hotel, shower and take the red eye to the next city. I had a great time getting paid for what I liked to do at the time. But that’s who I was, not who I am now. Still, people ask me if I knew Michael Jordan and I say, come on, I’m old enough to be his father.

WLJ: Given your background in professional sports, and your location in Mad-ison, do you ever get mistaken for the former University of Wisconsin lineman Joe Thomas?

Thomas: Not really. When he came along, he was Joe Thomas the football player. I Googled my name and got some of the basketball stuff from 30 years ago. But when you Google Joe Thomas now, you get the football player, All-American and stuff.

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