Garden-variety Wisconsin Supreme Court arguments involve two parties, arguing for a half hour.
But this past year, Wisconsin Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John worked on State ex rel. Ozanne v. Fitzgerald, in which six parties were scheduled to speak for two hours. The high-profile case took up the issue of whether circuit courts may enjoin the publication of a bill.
The debate lasted somewhere between five and six hours, St. John said.
“It was sort of out of the 19th Century in the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said, “before they had time limits and they’d spend the whole day arguing one case.”
Eight days later, the justices upheld Wisconsin’s controversial budget repair law.
St. John, who rarely argues cases in his high-level position at the Department of Justice, decided to represent the department at the appellate level, he said, because he had expertise in separation-of-powers jurisprudence.
“I did recognize it [the case] had great significance,” he said, “but at the time we had a lot of cases of great significance.
“We have a great team of lawyers here. It was not a solo effort by any means.”
Separating politics from the legal issues at stake was not a problem, St. John said.
“Our office benefitted considerably from what’s always been the attorney general’s core principle: that we’re here to be the lawyers for the state,” he said. “We’re not here to make law, but to defend the law and do the best job that we can. I think we were successful at doing that for Gov. Doyle, and I think we’ve been successful at doing that for Gov. Walker.”
Ozanne v. Fitzgerald wasn’t the first highly-publicized, far-reaching case for St. John.
After graduating from law school, he worked on the Washington, D.C.-team at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher representing President George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore.
In 2004, he returned to his hometown to work in the Madison office of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP. He joined the attorney general’s office in January 2007.
His predecessor at the DOJ, Ray Taffora of Michael Best & Friedrich, lauded St. John as a “superb lawyer who combines a keen intellect with an even temperament to achieve the objectives of his client.”
“Only a Leader in the Law,” Taffora said, “could accomplish what Kevin did in preparing for and arguing (Ozanne v. Fitzgerald), while at the same time performing the many duties the deputy attorney general must do in running the day-to-day operations of the Department of Justice.”