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Cold shoulder at the Capitol

April Southwick. By Kevin Harnack

April Southwick. By Kevin Harnack

April Southwick is staring down the possibility of unemployment with the eyes of someone who’s seen a lot worse.

The 39-year-old staff attorney with the Wisconsin Judicial Council last fall was diagnosed with a rapidly growing tumor in her abdomen. She had the tumor removed earlier this year and has since received a clean bill of health.

“At the time I had surgery, doctors hadn’t been able to positively say, ‘Yes, it’s benign,’” Southwick said. “It’s really a scary thing after having that hanging over you and having that fear and then finally getting good news and starting to feel better and getting back to your normal routine.”

Her normal routine didn’t last long.

Southwick returned to her solitary office on the eighth floor of the Tenney Building across from the state Capitol in late April after more than a month off. Two days later, she attended an April 27 Joint Finance Committee meeting and learned her position could be eliminated by the end of June.

“I was completely blindsided,” said Southwick, who said she had no inkling that her position was on the chopping block.

The Republican-controlled committee voted 12-4 along party lines to eliminate Southwick’s position, which accounts for $58,000 of the council’s $127,700 budget. She took the position in 2008.

Up until that April meeting, Southwick said, her understanding was the budget agenda did not include the possibility of eliminating jobs. She said she has yet to get an additional explanation from legislators.

Southwick’s position is superfluous, said state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend. He said State Bar lobbyists and legislative council lawyers serve the same purpose, and he made the motion to eliminate the position and save the money.

Grothman served on the Judicial Council during the 1990s. He said that during his tenure, the council was little more than a “bunch of people shooting the breeze,” even though the council’s goal is to develop and amend procedural rules for the state’s justice system.

“The idea of paying to have an extra lawyer debating issues seems ridiculous,” he said.

If the Joint Finance Committee’s change is adopted as part of the 2011-13 state budget, the statutorily created council would remain a part of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission but would lose the staff attorney position. The council was created in 1951 and until 1995 operated with a staff attorney as well as an administrative assistant. From 1995 to 2007 the council operated without a staff attorney.

Southwick, a Minnesota native, took the staff attorney job in 2008 after carving out a career as first a plaintiff’s lawyer and later a defense attorney in Fort Worth, Texas. After seven years in private practice, largely representing police officers, she grew tired of the grind and wanted a more fulfilling position, she said.

“I started to realize that sometimes it just doesn’t matter which side you are on if you are not helping either side,” she said. “Maybe if I jumped out of litigation and got involved in the procedural aspect of law, there might be some good to be done there.”

Southwick is the point person for all three branches of government to craft and explain procedural changes. She said that role differs from someone who lobbies for a particular issue in that she is the only person who can negotiate with the executive, judicial and legislative branches.

The council, she said, is nonpartisan and has no financial stake in the outcome of rule or law changes.

“It’s not like lobbyists can work with the Supreme Court,” Southwick said.

She said the council would be crippled if the Legislature eliminates her position, though she would not bear a grudge against the council or lawmakers. She said she plans to volunteer for the council if she loses her job.

“I’ve never really gotten angry about it,” Southwick said, “but it’s a slap in the face to the council members.”

Since she took the job, she said, all five rules petitions and all three legislative bills proposed by the council have either been adopted or passed. In the eight years prior to her arrival, Southwick said, the council had a 50 percent success rate with rules petitions and no success in the Legislature.

“I’m batting a thousand,” she said.

For instance, she said, when she joined the council, it had recently filed a petition with the Supreme Court to allow for the citation of unpublished appellate decisions for persuasive value. But the council lacked supporting information to sell the change to the justices, which is why Southwick pitched the idea to the State Bar and got others in the legal profession on board.

The court adopted the change, and it took effect July 1, 2009.

Up until that point, Southwick said, she sensed frustration and even disinterest from members who struggled with achieving the council’s goals.

“I’ve spent a lot of time bringing the council back from obscurity,” she said.

Southwick wants to continue that work, she said, even though there are plenty of opportunities in private practice.

“The worst-case scenario for me personally is I’ll go somewhere else and make more money,” she said.

But no matter where she works, Southwick said, she will not waste time looking back to question her job choices.

“It’s all about perspective,” she said. “Lawyers have a tendency to tie their own identity to their job. You are not your career. You are not your job title. That is just a part of your life.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

One comment

  1. As state bar president-elect Jim Brennan’s designee to the Judicial Council, I can say April Southwick’s work is essential, not “superfluous” as State Senator Grothman claims. Grothman is clearly out of touch and has no idea what the Judicial Council is doing today. Perhaps when he served the Council was doing nothing. That is not the case today. How is her work essential?

    Someone has to coordinate the meetings of the Council and its three committees. The members themselves are ill equipped to do that. Someone must keep the minutes of the committees and arrange for meeting space. Members are not suited for that either. Most importantly, April Southwick takes the complex legal issues the Council deals with and packages them so they can be easily digested. She finds the laws of other states that are relevant to the Council’s work and brings them to the attention of the Council. There is no way the Council’s members could do that on their own. Service on the Council is voluntary; everyone there already has a complex and demanding legal position somewhere else.

    April Southwick is a personalable and an excellent attorney. The massive amount of work she does allows the Council to focus on the complex legal issues we deal with. To not have such an excellent coordinator would hobble the Council. To make its members coordinate meetings, keep records and minutes, find relevant law from other jurisdictions and make presentations of proposals would be a disaster. No council member alone has the time to do all these things. None would because it is a full-time job. Funding April Southwick’s position and office space is a bargain for what the Council does which benefits all in our legal system.

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