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Letter to the editor: Bar proposal makes sense

To the editor:

I am writing in response to the Wisconsin Law Journal’s Feb. 3, 2014, editorial “Fight for your rights.”

As president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and a proponent of petition 13-07, I believe that the Law Journal misrepresented the intent of the State Bar’s proposal. This is a commonsense policy that will improve the board’s ability to effectively govern and plan for the future. It also has the support of an overwhelming majority of the State Bar Board of Governors, who are charged with preserving the integrity of the organization.

Petition 13-07 would authorize — through a bylaw amendment and Supreme Court rule change — the Board of Governors to establish a line of succession, define a board vacancy, and add a provision to remove an officer or members of the board.

The goal of the petition is to provide a mechanism for the circumstance where a governor or officer’s conduct is so detrimental to the board and to the legal profession that it warrants this type of action. Examples of detrimental activity found in Kentucky, Minnesota and Rhode Island include embezzlement of funds, conviction of sexual assault or other crimes, inappropriate use of powers, or other serious misconduct.

While the State Bar is very fortunate not to have experienced a governor or an officer acting in such a manner in its 135-year history, the board felt that it is necessary to have such a policy in place for our organization.

The Governance Committee chose to define “misconduct” or conduct “contrary to the best interest of the State Bar” based upon research of other state bar associations and their removal provisions. The wording is inherently broad and was purposely drafted that way. Trying to draft a specified list of conduct that would be subject to removal would be an almost impossible task, and would create an inflexible standard unable to be used for unthinkable situations.

The addition of a removal provision is not a new concept, and has been discussed by the board on and off since at least 2003.

With nearly 10 years of drafting, the Governance Committee effectively was able to put into place safeguards protecting a governor’s First Amendment rights in the unfortunate event that the removal provision would need to be implemented. As such, the Governance Committee, and the majority of the board, decided that the threshold for removal of a governor or officer was to be set at “75 percent of the total membership of the board, including the governor or officer subject to removal.” This high threshold serves to discourage use of the provision for mere disagreements of opinion or for “voicing concerns contrary to the majority opinion of the bar.”

If a governor or officer was threatened with removal for what they believed was protected speech or conduct, that individual would have the opportunity to make their case to the full board before removal could be effected, and if removed, could bring a cause of action against the State Bar if they believed appropriate.

Patrick Fiedler
State Bar of Wisconsin

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