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Group’s memo to lawmakers slams council; members, plaintiff’s bar responds

By: Erika Strebel, [email protected]//May 24, 2019//

Group’s memo to lawmakers slams council; members, plaintiff’s bar responds

By: Erika Strebel, [email protected]//May 24, 2019//

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In a recent memo, an organization of business and professional groups are calling on lawmakers to oppose any proposals to channel resources to the Judicial Council, calling the council an “arm of the plaintiff’s bar.”

Members of the council, as well as the plaintiff’s bar association, responded by taking exception to the memo, which was sent to lawmakers.

The Judicial Council is a 21-member body of stakeholders in the legal system, such as lawyers, lawmakers and judges, who recommend changes to court policies and procedures.

Last session, then-Gov. Scott Walker, using a line-item veto, eliminated not only the council’s staff-attorney position but also its entire budget.

Since then, the council has been looking for ways to get both back. At the council’s last meeting on May 17, one member, state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican from Racine, reported that he had talked with court representatives and lawmakers and found that one way to end the council’s budget troubles would be to attach the Judicial Council to the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council is a nonpartisan state agency that, among other things, provides legal advice and services to the Legislature and its committees.

The proposal did not sit well with the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a group that bills itself as promoting fairness in the state’s civil justice system and that’s composed of groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Wisconsin Defense Counsel. Responding in a memo addressed to lawmakers on the state’s budget-writing committee, the Civil Justice Council wrote that it is opposed to any attempt to restore the Judicial Council’s budget or attach it to the Legislative Council, saying the Judicial Council “has become an arm of the plaintiff’s bar” because it is led by a plaintiff’s attorney.

“If the Legislature were to move the Judicial Council to the Legislative Council, it would provide the Judicial Council the resources necessary to continue to actively lobby against civil liability reforms supported by the business community,” according to the memo.

The memo also contends that the Judicial Council was involved “in actively lobbying against” and “continues to work on ways to undermine” 2017 Act 235, which made changes to the state’s civil-liability laws. WCJC was a big supporter of the legislation, which was known before its enactment as Assembly Bill 773.

The Judicial Council, in testimony at public hearings, had asked lawmakers last session to send AB 733 to the council for review before voting on it.  In January, the council voted to provide the Legislature with a proposal that would remove three words that were inserted into one of the state’s rules of civil procedure when Act 235 was enacted.

However, at the Judicial Council’s meeting in February, members of its civil procedure and evidence committee stated that they had ended their study of Act 235. The committee has since taken up projects that call for modernizing the state’s injunction statute and studying whether any changes ought to be made to the state’s rules for service of process on people in other countries.

Bill Gleisner, the plaintiff’s attorney referred to in the memo,  has served on the Judicial Council for 11 years. Although Gleisner is also a member of the Wisconsin Association of Justice, and the state’s plaintiff’s bar association, he is not part of their boards or a top official at either organization.

“I have striven to support the civil justice system and not the interests of the plaintiff’s bar,” said Gleisner on Tuesday. “Many, many times the plaintiff’s and defense bars work in concert. Just look at the litigation section of the State Bar. … It’s an effort to besmirch my reputation and all the fine people on the council, who have no partisan ax to grind whatsoever.”

In a statement released Wednesday, Wisconsin Association of Justice President Ed Robinson took exception to the Civil Justice Council’s memo for, among other things, telling lawmakers that, because Gleisner is a plaintiff’s lawyer, the Judicial Council had become an “arm of the plaintiff’s bar.”

“This suggestion is pure fiction,” Robinson said. “The Judicial Council is a non-partisan organization whose 21 members are comprised of private practice and public sector lawyers from all different backgrounds, representatives appointed by the deans of our state’s two law schools, circuit court judges from across the State, and representatives from both the court of appeals and supreme court, as well as the legislature.”

Wanggaard responded on Thursday with his own memo to lawmakers calling the Civil Justice Council’s previous memo a “mistake-filled attack.”

Among the things Wanggaard noted was that it was not legislators but Gov. Walker who had proposed eliminating the Judicial Council entirely. The state’s budget-writing committee added the Judicial Council back in during the budget process, but Walker partially vetoed the decision, stripping the council of its budget and staff attorney.

Wanggaard asked the budget-writing committee to ignore the Civil Justice Council’s memo and to not take any action on the Judicial Council’s budget. He wrote that he is not making any motions related to the Judicial Council for the committee’s consideration.

Andy Cook, executive director for the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, said Thursday that documents from a recent public-records request support the statements in the memo. Cook said that the Civil Justice Council may respond to Wanggaard’s letter.

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