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Accusations of arrogance, vagueness pepper Milwaukee city attorney debate

Grant Langley and Tearman Spencer debate during ...

Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley (right, background) and his challenger, Tearman Spencer, take part in a debate at the Milwaukee Bar Association headquarters on Friday. (Staff photo by Michaela Paukner)

The candidates running for Milwaukee city attorney argued at a Milwaukee Bar Association forum on Friday whether it’s time for a shakeup in leadership at the city attorney’s office.

Grant Langley has been the Milwaukee city attorney for 36 years. He was first elected in 1984 and leads an office of 38 attorneys. He’s running for a ninth four-year term in office.

Tearman Spencer is Langley’s challenger. He worked as an engineer before earning his juris doctor from UW Law School and opening a law firm in Milwaukee.

Spencer said he’s running to improve customer service, the Milwaukee Police Department’s relationship with residents and fairness in the city. He accused Langley and the city attorney’s office of not being visible to the community over the past decades.

Langley said he purposely kept the office apart from politicians to ensure independence and non-partisanship in policy decisions. He fired back at Spencer, saying Spencer doesn’t have the experience to serve as city attorney and calling his goals for the position vague.

The candidates debated the current state of city affairs, including litigation and settlements involving the Milwaukee Police Department and the city attorney’s role in preparing for the Democratic National Convention in July.

Spencer said Langley hasn’t done enough to keep the city out of costly litigation and cited the high-profile case involving the Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown as an example. Langley said he had no regrets related to Brown’s lawsuit.

“Any lawyer would know that if you don’t put in an affirmative defense like that, you waive it,” Langley said, “and I was not about to waive any affirmative defense in that case.”

“You should have been more in-line with the mayor,” Spencer replied. “Sometimes, when it’s blatantly clear that the fault is there, we need not spend four or five years litigating at the cost and expense of the city.”

When asked about qualified immunity for police officers, Langley asked if Spencer knew what that meant. Langley said the city wins a lot of its cases, but the public only hears about the ones it loses. Spencer disputed that, saying he knows what qualified immunity is and that he was challenging Langley’s judgement.

Langley said the city attorney’s office has undertaken a huge project with the DNC, and he said it’s one of the big reasons behind his decision to run for another term.

“I can’t imagine having a person who has no background in the practice of municipal law taking over an office that is literally, on a daily basis, making decisions to ensure that we have a successful convention,” Langley said.

“To think you have to be here to guide those attorneys for the DNC is appalling,” Spencer said. “Lawyers in that office can get the job done under different leadership.”

Both candidates complimented the attorneys working at the city attorney’s office, but their answers differed when asked about the office’s current weaknesses.

“I’m not sure if we have any weaknesses,” Langley said. He later said the office could possibly use more lawyers.

“How arrogant of you to say there’s no weaknesses in that office,” Spencer said. “Sir, you are the weakness.”

Spencer again said Langley had been in the office for too long.

“I’m on top, and I’m not about to move,” Langley said.

“Then we’ll have to move you,” Spencer replied.

The election is April 7.

About Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at mpaukner@wislawjournal.com.

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