A Small Part to Play
While forging a business litigation practice in Milwaukee, Tomislav Kuzmanovic also helped liberate Croatia
Published in 2006 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
By Larry Widen on November 14, 2006
In July 1992, a 28-year-old lawyer from Milwaukee visited the White House for the first time. This wasn’t your typical White House tour. Tomislav Kuzmanovic, a first-generation Croatian American, along with more than a dozen members of the Croatian-American Association, met with Brent Scowcroft, President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, in the Old Executive Office Building, to try to change the Bush administration’s policy of neutrality regarding the growing crisis in former Yugoslavia.
The reception, Kuzmanovic admits, was pretty cold. “I was thrilled to be at a meeting in the White House,” he says. “Unfortunately, I didn’t accomplish what I’d hoped.”
But the White House visit was just one weapon in Kuzmanovic’s arsenal. After the Croatian government’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991 led to armed conflict with the Yugsoslav People’s Army, which in turn led to atrocities, death camps and the continuation of Slobodan Milosevic’s policy of “ethnic cleansing,” Kuzmanovic kept busy. He organized sending election observers to Bosnia-Herzegovina in November 1990 and facilitated trips to the war-torn region for journalists and members of Congress from 1991 to 1993. He helped defeat U.S. Rep. Jim Moody, a strong supporter of Serbia in Congress, and later supported and advised Russ Feingold in his successful run for the U.S. Senate. He wrote op-eds and letters to the editor, and appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, local television and Good Morning America.
“Tom’s willingness to speak his mind is what I most admire about him,” says Tony Peraica, the commissioner of Cook County, Ill., and former president of the Croatian-American Association. “His keen intellect and his political acumen have been an inspiration to me and others.”
When an aide for Gov. Bill Clinton contacted Kuzmanovic about meeting the presidential candidate, Kuzmanovic deferred to Peraica, who met with Clinton; but Kuzmanovic did help organize Croatian-American attendance for a speech Gov. Clinton delivered at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater that October. In the speech, as Clinton lashed out at the Bush administration’s tacit support of Europe’s last Communist regime, he used some of Kuzmanovic’s arguments, relayed to him through Peraica.
Once Clinton was elected, however, he too adopted a wait-and-see position on the Bosnian crisis. Kuzmanovic discovered that despite the change in administrations, the key players in the National Security Council and the State Department remained the same and recommended the same policies.
“I was a cynic to begin with,” Kuzmanovic says, “but it really did sour me [on politics].”
Given the crisis, though, cynicism wasn’t an option.
Kuzmanovic grew up with dreams of Croatian independence. His parents, Boris and Ivanka, fled Communist Yugoslavia in the 1950s and immigrated to the United States, where they settled into a Croatian-American neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee. Boris, a tool and die maker, found a job with GE Medical Systems, and the family prospered. They enjoyed listening to Croatian music together, and played soccer on most weekends. Yet the kitchen table was also a gathering place for news of grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends, still in Croatia, who were thrown in jail or worse simply for acknowledging their heritage.
“I spoke Croatian before I spoke English,” Kuzmanovic says. “And those stories stuck with me. I grew up appreciating life in a country where people had freedom of speech.”
“Of course we loved the United States,” Kuzmanovic’s mother, Ivanka, says. “It was the world’s beacon of democracy. But as he was growing up, Tom was also aware of what was happening on the other side of the world.”
Sometimes his awareness came firsthand. At 6, and again as a teenager, Kuzmanovic visited his father’s parents in Croatia. On the second trip he traveled as a member of Milwaukee’s American-Croatian Silver Strings music group. Kuzmanovic played the tamburitza, a long-necked fretted string instrument used in traditional Croatian folk songs, and his dad came along to hear the concerts in the capital city of Zagreb. Kuzmanovic remembers men with submachine guns standing in train stations, parks and even the music hall where they played. “The dictator Tito had died a year earlier,” he says. “Still, all the shops and businesses prominently displayed his picture, like Mao Zedong. You could sense the fear in Zagreb. The whole feeling was one of moral corruption.”
The paranoia was such that even the touring high school musicians were under scrutiny. “Part of our emblem for the Silver Strings incorporated the Croatian flag, but without the red star,” Kuzmanovic says. “Because of that, we were forbidden to play certain Croatian songs in our concert.”
Things turned ugly when the secret police took Boris Kuzmanovic’s American passport. Kuzmanovic remembers a scene straight out of a Robert Ludlum novel. “A couple of guys in black coats came to my grandmother’s apartment and took my father with them,” he says.
Every morning Boris was required to report to the police station where he was repeatedly interrogated. Kuzmanovic was stunned to learn the information the police had on his father. “They knew he worked for GE, they knew the names of his friends in America, everything,” he says. “We weren’t sure he was going to be allowed to leave with us. They finally returned his passport and watched him board the plane.”
By the time Kuzmanovic was a senior in high school, he found himself increasingly drawn toward the law, and at the University of Wisconsin–Madison he became passionate about constitutional law. “I took judicial policy making as an undergraduate,” Kuzmanovic says, “and I really enjoyed discussing legal aspects of current events. All of that was fascinating to me.”
After graduating from law school in 1988, he joined Hinshaw & Culbertson and gained a reputation among Croatian Americans as someone who could help with passports, citizenship papers, travel visas, death certificates and other consular matters. His reputation extended all the way to Michigan, where, in April 1990, businessman Ilija Letica funded a group, Lawyers for Democratic Reforms, to observe the first free multiparty elections held in Croatia in more than 50 years. Letica was, according to Kuzmanovic, “another guy who came here [from Yugoslavia] with zero and built himself into a multi-multimillionaire.” Kuzmanovic was asked to go as an observer, and he and other representatives monitored voting booths to ensure privacy and discourage electioneering.
“Voters were given a ballot with more than just one name on it,” Kuzmanovic explains. “They actually had a choice of who they could vote for.” The result, a victory for the Croatian Democratic Union led by Franjo Tudjman, shocked many Communists. Less than six months later, President Tudjman traveled to Canada and Washington, D.C., and Kuzmanovic — tapped by Letica — accompanied him as a translator.
Thus the parents who fled the repressive regime gave birth to the son who accompanied its first democratically elected representatives to the West. They were, Kuzmanovic says, with typical modesty, “ecstatic that their son had a small part to play.”
Ask the 43-year-old attorney to describe himself and he comes up with one word: lucky. He cites a solid marriage to a supportive wife, three smart kids and a partnership in an internationally respected law firm. But Ned Czajkowski, a former capital partner with the firm, says Kuzmanovic is anything but lucky. “Tom is a hard worker who has totally mastered the mechanics of litigation,” Czajkowski says. “His handling of witnesses on the stand, his courtroom strategy, the way he develops a rapport with the judge and jury, it’s all outstanding. His trial skills quickly put clients at ease.”
These skills, which he has displayed on local, state and federal levels, have been exhibited on an international stage as well. Kuzmanovic’s work on behalf of Croatia brought him to the attention of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a legal organization established by the U.N. Security Council in 1993 to try allegations of war crimes. In May 1998, Kuzmanovic traveled to The Hague and joined the defense team of Zdravko Mucic, a Croatian detention camp commander accused of allowing prisoners of war to be tortured, beaten and killed.
“Celebici was not a pretty scene,” Kuzmanovic says of the old Yugoslav military barracks that had been converted into an ammunition dump and detention facility. “It was a bad place to keep people, but there was no other place with adequate ventilation or toilet facilities for 500 people.” Celebici was a training base for the Croatian and Bosnian military and it wasn’t uncommon for a live artillery round to land in the middle of a highly populated area. “Even worse, some nights an angry soldier who’d just lost a friend or family member would come in,” Kuzmanovic says. “They’d find a prisoner and beat them or kill them. There was no control of the troops stationed there.”
During the trial, Kuzmanovic sensed political motivations behind the prosecution. “You can’t have this international tribunal and then say the only war criminals were Serbs,” he says. “The ICTY wanted to show they were equal-opportunity prosecutors.”
Because the lead counsel spoke neither English nor French, the official languages of the Tribunal, Kuzmanovic communicated with the defendant, questioned witnesses and translated the court’s documents, and he was troubled by the subsequent guilty verdict. “Frankly,” he says, “this conviction would not have occurred in the United States because of the evidentiary standards we have.” They appealed, and Kuzmanovic got a 10-year sentence reduced to nine. By then so much time had passed the defendant had already spent six years in the detention facility and Kuzmanovic won a motion for early release. “It was a long hard battle, lasting many years,” Kuzmanovic says. “But we did our best under the circumstances, and my client is home now.”
During the trial, Kuzmanovic worked with American, Australian, Bosnian, Canadian, Sri Lankan and Italian attorneys. “I learned a lot from them and hopefully they learned something from me,” he says. One of those colleagues, Peter Murphy, professor of law at Houston’s South Texas College of Law, calls Kuzmanovic an excellent lawyer who cares passionately about his clients. He adds that points of law in the Celebici case regarding the Geneva Conventions and the rights of POWs are especially relevant today in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling on Guantanamo.
Kuzmanovic’s latest big case is also international. In 1999 a group of Serbian individuals and organizations calling themselves “the Holocaust Survivors” brought suit against a Vatican bank and the Order of Friars Minor, a Franciscan order of priests, for allegedly receiving looted assets following World War II. As an Allied victory loomed on the horizon, the Ustasha, a Nazi puppet regime, began moving gold bullion to safe havens outside Croatia. The lawsuit contends that the money helped war criminals flee Europe for asylum in South America. A Croatian priest who knew Kuzmanovic asked him to represent the Friars in the case.
“The gold was indeed removed from the bank, but who took it and where it ended up is anybody’s guess,” Kuzmanovic says. “A book on the topic says British soldiers took the gold from the Croatian government. No one has been able to prove that theory, or any other one.”
Kuzmanovic says the case is really more of a fishing expedition for the plaintiffs to find out what information everybody has. “A case like this tests an attorney’s integrity,” Kuzmanovic says. “Practicing law can be a lot like tennis. If you call a ball outside the line when it’s really in, you get a reputation for that kind of playing.” He says it’s critical for lawyers to remain honest and ethical at all times. Of course I want to win, but I want to win playing by the rules.”
The district court dismissed the case, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. Kuzmanovic appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which elected not to hear the case. Now it’s back in the Federal District Court of Northern California.
“Still, I would have loved the chance to argue the case in front of the Supreme [Court] justices” he says. “For any lawyer, that’s the greatest reward.” He adds, “Fewer cases are being tried these days, which is good for the clients because it’s less expensive and takes the uncertainty away. But for a litigator, the ultimate challenge is convincing a group of people to decide something in your favor.”
Over the years Kuzmanovic has won his share of awards. In 1991 he received the Milwaukee Young Lawyers Association Service Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Community. A year later the Croatian city of Slavonski Brod honored him for facilitating meetings between Croatian and Wisconsin business leaders. And in 1996, after Croatia reclaimed its lands from Serb forces, and after the Dayton Agreement led to the beginning of the end of the war, President Tudjman awarded Kuzmanovic the Order of the Croatian “Pleter” for his contributions toward Croatia’s independence.
Kuzmanovic insists he’s just a regular guy from the south side of Milwaukee who happened to have the right skills and the right background and the right contacts to help. “While I’m proud of the part I played,” he says, “it was small compared to what others did. The fight wasn’t won by politicians in Washington, D.C. It was won by soldiers in the towns and villages of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They gave their lives. What I did can’t begin to compare to that.”
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