The Wisconsin Supreme Court has sided with a recent law-school graduate and Republican campaign manager in a dispute over a decision that denied him admission to practice law in the state.
The justices’ decision Friday stems from Charles Nichols’ challenge of a decision of the Board of Bar Examiners, the 11-member body charged by the Supreme Court with admitting attorneys to practice in the state and ensuring they fulfill their continuing-education requirements.
Nichols applied for admission to the bar in March 2015 before graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School in December of that year. The BBE last year decided that Nichols had not met the character and fitness requirements to be admitted, pointing in large part to how Nichols had plagiarized a research paper he submitted for his Law of Democracy class in his third year of law school.
The board found that Nichols continued a pattern of disregarding rules and authority, including failing Professional Responsibility because he missed more than three classes and not disclosing to the UW Law School three underage-drinking citations.
Nichols, who works as the campaign manager for Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and research director for the Republican Party, challenged the BBE’s decision in September last year. His contentions included that the BBE made findings and inferences not supported by the record and that they misapplied certain standards for admission.
Nichols also argued that the board assigned too much weight to the information he failed to disclose to his law school and that his failing Professional Responsibility was irrelevant under the BBE’s rules. Nichols had also argued that the record involving the plagiarized paper showed that he was careless but not that he intended to deceive his professor, noting that he had submitted the paper without citations because he had failed to budget his time and ask for an extension.
The state Supreme Court on Friday reversed the BBE’s decision.
“While we understand the Board’s decision, we conclude that the incidents the Board relied upon, while troubling, are sufficiently offset by positive character evidence to warrant our conclusion that Mr. Nichols may be admitted to the practice of law in Wisconsin, albeit with conditions,” according to the court’s per curiam decision.
The justices disagreed with some of Nichol’s contentions, finding that the BBE’s findings were properly grounded in the record and that its review was in line with the standards of admission. However, they agreed that Nichols’ omissions in his bar application were careless.
The justices wrote that in the end, they were swayed to give Nichols the benefit of doubt because of the support expressed by Nichols’ employers at the Lieutenant Governor’s office, for whom he worked during law school, and Professor Robert Yablon, who taught the class for which Nichols had submitted the plagiarized paper.
Yablon had noted that Nichols honestly acknowledged his errors and assumed responsibility for them and that he had paid a price for plagiarizing the paper. For one, he got an “F” on his transcript. Second, his actions put up various hurdles that made his admission more expensive and stressful.
The high court ordered the Office of Lawyer Regulation on Friday to appoint a local lawyer to supervise Nichols’ practice of law for the next two years. The court also called on Nichols to sign a monitoring agreement with terms set by that lawyer, who will report to the OLR each quarter. Once the two years are up, the OLR will recommend whether the monitoring should end. Follow @erikastrebel