Attorneys in Wisconsin still don’t have to worry about being disbarred after the state Supreme Court unanimously voted Nov. 10 to deny a petition to implement a procedure and criteria for permanent license revocation.
Currently, a five-year revocation is the maximum punishment for misconduct, after which time attorneys have to petition the Supreme Court for reinstatement. Justices viewed the disbarment proposal as duplicative to the system already in place, since a petition for reinstatement does not guarantee that the court will grant it.
“I believe revocation is permanent until we are persuaded to let that person back in,” said Justice Patience D. Roggensack.
In the last 30 years, 227 attorneys have had their licenses revoked and only 17 have been reinstated. Of those 17, only two have gotten in trouble again.
Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson wondered whether the petition was meant to encourage the court to levy more severe punishments.
“We average about seven revocations a year,” she said. “Maybe they are trying to tell us we need to do more.”
Petitioners conceded that disbarment would be a rarity, but also argued that not having the option sends the wrong message to the public.
Seventeen other states have a procedure for permanent revocation.
Petitioner Roddy W. Rogahn, vice-chair of the Board of Administrative Over-sight, said he hoped the rule would never be invoked, but it is needed to show people that attorneys view the practice of law as a privilege and not a right.
“It’s not a death sentence. They can go do something else,” he said. “But we don’t need a lawyer who has been in prison for five years petitioning the court every nine months for reinstatement.”
The State Bar’s Board of Governors previously opposed the petition on the grounds that the rule would be used as a weapon by the Office of Lawyer Regulation to muscle attorneys accused of misconduct into agreeing to charges.
While OLR cannot negotiate plea deals, attorney Frank D. Remington said the threat of disbarment is “an incredible hammer to be holding over the heads of lawyers.”
Preliminary Review Committee chair Edward A. Hannan said that regardless of the charge recommended by OLR or a referee, the court makes the final decision with regard to punishment.
Despite its denial, the court did invite petitioners to submit an alternate version of the petition in the future.
Justice Annette K. Ziegler said she would consider a petition that proposed a lengthier suspension, as opposed to disbarment, and specific criteria to justify harsher punishment.
In an interview, Hannan said he planned to report the court’s decision back to both the Board of Administrative Oversight and the Preliminary Review Committee.
“We will consider the court’s invitation and take it to committee and get their view on what should be pursued,” he said.
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.