President Obama led Republican Mitt Romney in Wisconsin by four points in a recent Qunnipiac poll, but anyone who thinks the November elections will run smoothly hasn’t been paying attention. The state has been in political turmoil almost since Governor Scott Walker took office in January 2011.
And where there is turmoil, there must be lawyers. The state’s attorneys have been busy as badgers, funneling money to the state’s politicians and collecting it for politics-related legal work.
For example, the state paid outside counsel $925,000 to defend a redistricting plan drawn by the Republicans who controlled the state Legislature by a narrow margin for much of Walker’s term. Walker, also a Republican, approved the map on August 9, 2011.
“It was an enormous undertaking,” said Patrick Hodan, a shareholder at Milwaukee’s Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, which the state hired to represent it in that dispute. At least seven attorneys from his firm did work for members of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which oversees the state’s elections system and defended the GOP map (and its attorneys gave nearly $18,000 to candidates on both sides of the state’s bitterly fought recall campaigns). A spokesman for the state Department of Justice confirmed the legal spend to The Associated Press.
According to Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which compiles campaign donations reports filed with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, lawyers and law firms contributed more than $1.2 million between January 1, 2011, and April 23, 2012 — and 87 percent of that went to recall candidates.
“Those who would normally clean up in that period — key committee members, committee chairs, legislative leaders, majority speaker — they weren’t the key recipients,” he said. “Their fundraising pales in comparison.”
Democrats and their union allies launched the recall campaigns against Walker and Republican members of the Legislature after they forced through restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees. Walker survived the effort, but control of the state Senate shifted to the Democrats.
In terms of contributions from attorneys, Walker was the clear leader, collecting more than $300,000. His Democratic rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, trailed with more than $200,000.
More than $170,000 came from attorneys who didn’t identify with a particular law firm, McCabe said. But of those who did, the largest amount came from Foley & Lardner — its attorneys gave more than $73,000 to recall candidates, with one-third of that amount going to Walker. The next highest group came from Quarles & Brady, whose attorneys gave more than $54,000, of which 60 percent went to Barrett.
Attorneys at Boyden Gray & Associates, the Washington firm founded by C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush, gave $25,000 to Walker; Kirkland & Ellis, based in Chicago, and Gruber Law Offices, a personal injury firm in Milwaukee, each gave $10,000 to Barrett.
Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren’s attorneys weren’t the only ones contributing in the recall campaigns. Lawyers at opposing counsel in the redistricting case — Godfrey & Kahn, another Milwaukee firm — gave more than $40,000, half of which went to Barrett.
That case involved the decennial redrawing of the state’s political map. A group of 23 Wisconsin residents, represented by Godfrey & Kahn, alleged that the new map violated the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Voting Rights Act. The case was consolidated with a similar action brought by Voces de la Frontera Inc., a nonprofit organization in Milwaukee focused on protecting the rights of immigrants. Milwaukee attorney Peter Earle represented that group.
On March 22, following a trial, a panel of three federal judges impaneled under rules governing redistricting disputes upheld most of the new districts. But the panel found that two state Assembly districts in Milwaukee violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by “improperly diluting the citizen voting age population of Latinos.”
On April 11, the panel adopted a revised map of those two districts that had been submitted by the plaintiffs, who now are seeking $475,000 in attorney fees and costs. Douglas Poland of the Madison, Wis., office of Godfrey & Kahn said that his firm is negotiating with the board regarding the fees.
There could be more of this work to come: Recently obtained emails and other internal documents from Michael Best & Friedrich, hired by the Legislature to draw up its maps, indicate that attorneys might have been aware of Voting Rights Act violations in the two districts at issue, according to Poland. State Senate Majority Leader Mark Miller, who took over after Democrats regained control of that chamber, has been asking for those documents.
Poland said the disclosure might reopen the redistricting case. “It appears to be emails that may not have been produced to us in the course of the litigation,” Poland said.
Raymond Taffora, chairman of the government and regulatory law practice group at Michael Best in Madison, did not return a call for comment.
Michael Best attorneys were among the largest contributors to recall candidates during the past year, giving more than $52,000. However, despite being retained by state Republicans, the firm’s lawyers gave more than $23,000 to Barrett and $4,800 to Walker.
Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at email@example.com.