A proposal to greatly reduce the number of referees handling attorney disciplinary cases sparked a larger debate Friday about the state of Office of Lawyer Regulation proceedings in Wisconsin.
At a public hearing during a state Supreme Court rules conference, the justices asked OLR Director Keith Sellen about concerns – including a backlog of cases and the inability for an attorney under investigation to negotiate a plea bargain during an investigation – and what can be done to improve the system.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said measures have been taken to try to reduce the backlog, but cases still are waiting for a resolution. It may be time, she said, to look at other states “and see where we can cut down on the delays.”
Sellen has said it takes the OLR, on average, 60 days to determine whether investigators should formally look into a complaint. The formal investigation then takes about 382 days.
Justice Michael Gableman, in particular, focused Friday on a letter submitted by Hartford attorney James Mohr Jr., a former referee who wrote that lengthy case delays usually were because of the OLR and its long investigation process.
Sellen said he did not agree with Mohr’s assertions and that he believed the former referee’s comments stemmed from a “disagreement we had in a certain case.”
Gableman said it’s possible that the complaints were “symptomatic of something bigger,” however.
“I think there’s a bigger picture … that I’m trying to draw out for you,” Gableman said.
When the justices did discuss the rule proposal at hand Friday, they mainly were concerned about the increased workload for a shallower, albeit permanent, OLR referee pool.
Sellen has maintained that, on average, a referee under the proposed system would work about seven hours a week. But he said that doesn’t include travel time.
Justice Pat Roggensack expressed concern that the new system may require the state Supreme Court to provide benefits to referees if their workload increased. Sellen said that would have to be set forth in a contract each referee signs to perform his or her duties.
After a lunch break, Wausau attorney Dean Dietrich of Ruder Ware LLSC, who has represented attorneys during disciplinary proceedings, began his testimony before the court. Among other OLR-related topics, he spoke about referee substitutions, which he also discussed in a letter submitted to the court with the petition.
Several other items are on the court’s agenda for Friday, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many the justices would get to before the day was out.