Barristers of the Ballot Box
How five Wisconsin lawyers got involved in the political process
Published in 2009 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
on November 16, 2009
Updated on November 17, 2009
Although only 14 percent of Wisconsin state legislators currently hold J.D. degrees, the state has a rich tradition of attorneys mixing law and politics. Here are five lawyers carrying on that tradition.
The General Counsel
Michael Best & Friedrich
It’s not an unreasonable question to ask: Does Reince Priebus ever sleep? The Milwaukee attorney heads up construction litigation for Michael Best & Friedrich, a big job in its own right. Then there are the side gigs—the ones that have Priebus emerging as one of the national Republican Party’s Young Turks. He is the general counsel to the Republican National Committee (RNC), an inner-circle adviser to RNC chairman Michael Steele and chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party. In short, he works like crazy.
“My iPhone and laptop help me tremendously,” he says. “I am dependent on those technological devices to get me through.”
Priebus is the son of a Greek mother who grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, and a Wisconsin father who was based with the U.S. Army in Ethiopia in the late 1960s. When Priebus was 6, the couple moved to Wisconsin, where the elder Priebus joined an electricians’ union and worked for the Racine Unified School District until his retirement.
Given that background, the obvious question is anticipated by Priebus: “You might wonder how this guy became a Republican,” he says.
The reality is that both parents were staunch Republicans. At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Priebus himself served as president of the College Republicans but defied demographic expectations in other ways. He worked as a law clerk, for example, in the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund while at law school at the University of Miami in 1998. “I think it’s important to be exposed to things that—as a kid from Kenosha—I wasn’t exposed to, at least not on a daily basis,” he says. “I think that was an important part of my development as an attorney.”
Before law school, Priebus worked at the state Capitol as a clerk on the Assembly Education Committee and as a staffer for several state legislators, and, overall, he volunteered for about 50 political campaigns, gradually widening his political circles. By the time he joined his current law firm, he had made a name for himself in the party. Between 2000 and 2004, he was GOP party chair in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District.
In 2004, Priebus made a bid for elected office, losing 52 to 48 percent to state Senate incumbent Robert Wirch, after raising and spending more than $350,000. It was a strong showing by a Republican in a Democratic district. Priebus later became the state’s GOP party treasurer, then vice chairman. In 2007, he was named the state’s GOP chairman.
It was around that time that he got to know Michael Steele, the former Maryland GOP chair who was then that state’s lieutenant governor. Noting that Priebus “is one of those few people that I’ve met in my life that I instantly connected with,” Steele tapped Priebus as national chairman of Steele’s surprising and successful campaign for the RNC chairmanship.
“It was just hand-to-hand combat,” Priebus says, “getting votes and working every single state in the country for Michael Steele. As you know it turned out very well.”
Earlier this year, in a speech before Wisconsin Republicans, Steele affirmed the key role Priebus played. “I wouldn’t be here without [Priebus],” Steele said. “And I don’t mean in Wisconsin, I mean as chairman of this party. … He just laid down a nice pathway to this chairmanship by being honest, by being genuine and by being the counsel in my ear.”
Steele rewarded Priebus by making him RNC general counsel, and the role was made permanent at an RNC meeting on July 27. The job puts Priebus in charge of the RNC’s legal operations—everything from federal election commission compliance to litigation, including an RNC suit challenging the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act. “There are also internal labor issues that we have to deal with,” Priebus says. “We have a full staff of lawyers that need to be managed. Communications coming out of the building have to be reviewed. It’s a tremendous operation.”
Expect less sleep.
Christine Bremer Muggli
Bremer & Trollop Law Offices
Wisconsin residents didn’t know it, but during last November’s presidential election one-tenth of them voted for Christine Bremer Muggli. The Wausau personal injury attorney was one of Wisconsin’s 10 presidential electors that year after serving as a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
There was, she says, quite a bit of behind-the scenes drama in Denver involving still-simmering emotions over Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign. “We were kind of nervous,” she recalls. “We were kind of arguing with each other, some of us. We didn’t want it to look like our party was divided. And then we saw the klieg lights and we saw Hillary come onto the floor. It was really an amazing moment.” Afterwards, she says, there was unity.
Bremer Muggli has been steeped in law and politics all her life. Her father and grandfather were both attorneys, and they were both Chicago city aldermen during the heyday of that city’s Democratic Party machine.
“I just thought that those two things went together—that you needed a law degree to be able to serve in the best way,” she says. “So that’s what I did.”
Politics was more personal in those days, Bremer Muggli reflects. When she attended her grandfather’s funeral, a flood of people praised him for hand-delivering food to their struggling families during the Depression and for personally securing them jobs. She also remembers greeting Mayor Richard J. Daley, as he walked down the street to attend mass when she was a Loyola University student in the late 1970s.
“That’s the kind of politics I grew up with, so it’s in my blood, it’s something that’s part of me,” Bremer Muggli says. “I wish it weren’t sometimes, because it takes an awful lot of time.”
Bremer Muggli graduated from Loyola University School of Law in 1978, launching her career as a special assistant to the Illinois attorney general. Then she married a man from Wisconsin who wanted to move back to his home state. “I fell in love with this area and I decided to make the move,” she says. “Here we are.”
She began her personal injury practice in Merrill in 1982, moving to Wausau in 1989, and founding her own firm, Bremer & Trollop Law Offices, in 2003. She is the most recent past president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice (formerly the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers), and only its second female president. She serves on Gov. Jim Doyle’s review board for judicial selection, and was appointed by Sen. Herb Kohl to the Federal Nominating Commission, which reviews and recommends federal judicial appointees to the senator, who then forwards nominees to the president of the United States.
For Bremer Muggli, her practice as a trial lawyer is as personal a matter as old-school Chicago politics—particularly as it relates to the hot-button issue of health care reform.
“It’s a lot different than when I started practicing law many, many years ago,” she says. “We had the opportunity to make sure that people who were hurt, that we were representing, got really good care, and that’s really not the case anymore. You really have to fight for it if they don’t have coverage.”
Bremer Muggli allowed her law offices to be used as a phone bank by the Obama for President campaign, and did it again last summer when the president rolled out his health care plan.
The stakes are high, she says. “If someone has injuries where maybe the medical expenses are $25,000 or $35,000, most people just can’t afford that. If they don’t have insurance, that’s just not money they’ve got. So it ruins their lives and makes things very, very difficult for them. That’s why more of us are going to become involved in this debate as it goes forward.”
Jeremy P. Levinson
Friebert, Finerty & St. John
Jeremy Levinson first got interested in politics two and a half decades ago, at age 13, when he realized, he says, that “the Soviet Union and the United States were poised to obliterate the planet.” Nevertheless, he adds, “I never intended politics to play a role in whatever career path I ultimately took.”
It did. Levinson’s practice focuses on ethical issues in regulated industries and professions. As a result, he has represented a number of Wisconsin candidates and officials who have become embroiled in scandal—or, as he delicately puts it, who “have had a misunderstanding with government.”
Perhaps his most widely publicized case involved Donovan Riley, a lawyer, former CEO of the University of Illinois Medical Center and a Loyola University law professor. In 2006, Riley ran as a Democrat for a Milwaukee state Senate seat.
In part because of his opposition to state education vouchers, Levinson says, a special interest group did some digging and discovered Riley had a rather big problem. Voting records indicated that, in 2000, while he maintained residences in both Oconomowoc, Wis., and Chicago, Riley apparently voted twice for president. In the firestorm that followed, Riley withdrew from the race. But he still faced a felony charge that Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher pursued adamantly.
In the end, Levinson secured a compromise. Riley pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, retaining his voting and hunting privileges, which would have been revoked with a felony conviction. In exchange, he forfeited his law license and agreed to pay a $10,000 fine. Giving up the law license might be viewed as a minor concession, since, Levinson says, he was already retired.
Another case involved state Sen. Brian Burke, who, while running for state attorney general in 2002, was charged with 18 felonies, including using state resources and state employees for partisan campaigning.
“That case took four years to resolve, and it went up to the [Wisconsin] Supreme Court at least once, the court of appeals a couple of times and it ultimately resolved with an agreement,” Levinson says. Burke pleaded guilty to a felony and a misdemeanor, and paid a large fine out of his campaign fund. However, Levinson says with pride, his client never spent a night in jail, and was instead subjected to home monitoring.
Levinson developed this niche gradually—first by volunteering for various Democratic campaigns, then, as an attorney, by answering mundane legal questions for political candidates. Can I accept this check from this political action committee? was a common one.
“When potential problems and real problems started rolling in, I was sort of the natural fit,” he says. “At the same time, I had developed this other piece of my practice dealing with regulated professions—which fundamentally is what public service is—and I offered that.”
Levinson admits that his main goal as an attorney is to avoid a fight. “I’m happy to report that most of my representation of political organizations and officials ends up being rather boring,” he says. “I try to give good advice and try to prevent clients from creating problems that require more profound or adversarial kind of attention.”
Ann S. Jacobs
Domnitz & Skemp
Ann S. Jacobs had to reschedule her first interview with this magazine because, after an unscheduled stop at the state Capitol, she found herself pressed into service on a lobbying mission. “I was up there for something else entirely and ended up walking around the Capitol trying to corner some representatives,” she says.
Jacobs, a third-generation University of Wisconsin Law School graduate (class of 1992), is a former public defender and current trial attorney who focuses on automobile accidents, nursing home abuse and neglect and medical malpractice. But politics keeps her busy as well.
Jacobs is counsel to Election Protection, a nonpartisan umbrella group for a cadre of local and national voting rights advocates. The group has been active in Wisconsin since the 2004 presidential election, when Jacobs served as an election monitor.
She got involved, she says, because of her conviction that voting rights need protection. “We should be very cautious with anything that limits or obstructs that right,” she says.
The 2004 election was an eye-opening experience, she says. “We had partisan operatives, almost uniformly from the Republican Party, basically trying to disrupt voting. And because of some of the systemic challenges here in the area of election management and election training, they were able to come in and really muck up the works.”
Jacobs saw some of the abuses firsthand. “We witnessed individuals insisting that voters without photo ID only get provisional ballots,” she says. “We saw people telling voters they needed two forms of ID, demanding ID of voters, taking photographs of voters, handling the voters’ ballots.”
Nonpartisan analyses of voting interference that look at the problem from a procedural—rather than political—viewpoint is crucially important, Jacobs says, and that is the role of Election Protection. “No matter who is coming in to muck it up, if the system functions right it will be able to handle those attempts,” she says. “But if you’ve got a system that is not well-organized, is difficult to use and in which workers aren’t well-trained, people can really come in and interrupt and interfere with voting.”
There is no denying that her emphasis on the rights of the disenfranchised flies in the face of some conservative critics, who advocate increased personal responsibility on the part of voters. “There is this belief that voting should be more difficult, that we should make it really onerous,” Jacobs says. “Unfortunately, those burdens fall on the poor, the minorities, the disenfranchised. They rarely fall on people who have easier lives.”
So is her position nonpartisan? “It is premised on what I suppose are classically liberal principles—the opening up of the process to as many people as possible,” she concedes. However, she adds, “We are founded on a nonpartisan basis, and we take it seriously. It is not a wink-wink.”
The Attack-Ad Target
Keith R. Clifford
Clifford & Raihala
What political notoriety Keith Clifford has was gained, to his regret, at the expense of his wife. During a 2007 Wisconsin State Supreme Court race, Linda Clifford was running against Annette Ziegler, whose team put out attack ads in which Keith starred.
“The Supreme Court decides how much trial lawyers like Clifford’s husband can sue doctors and businesses for,” the Ziegler ad intoned. “Asked if she would remove herself from those cases, Clifford said ‘no.’ Meaning she could actually help her husband pocket millions.”
“It was a very sexist view of how the world works,” Clifford says of the ad’s message. “But, of course, it was meant for political purposes.”
Clifford notes that Ziegler’s own spouse comes from the construction trade, which, like any industry, stands to win or lose depending on how the judiciary rules in a given case. Indeed, in a final irony of the campaign, Ziegler herself was engulfed in a scandal shortly after her victory that mirrored her ad’s accusations against Clifford. Ziegler admitted to a conflict of interest by failing to recuse herself from 11 circuit court cases that involved West Bend Savings Bank, where her husband was a sitting board member. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ultimately reprimanded her for her “serious and willful” but somehow “inadvertent” offense.
Clifford has a distinguished legal and political pedigree himself. His grandfather, attorney Eugene A. Clifford, represented Dodge County in 1931 as the only Democrat in the Wisconsin State Senate. Clifford’s father, Eugene R. Clifford, a rural newspaperman, was a member of the Democratic Organizing Committee that rebuilt Wisconsin’s skeletal Democratic Party after World War II.
“A lot of the veterans that came back got together and organized the Democratic Party, and my father was one of them,” he says. “Others were Gaylord Nelson—who founded Earth Day and later became governor and senator—and Pat Lucey.”
At the University of Wisconsin School of Law, Clifford worked in the legal department of then-Gov. Lucey, dubbed “the kiddy corps” for its youth, and he’s volunteered for an endless series of Democratic political campaigns. He’s also a past chair of the Madison’s city Board of Ethics and past president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice. Currently he is three years into a 10-year appointment on that organization’s legislative task force, which identifies political candidates and legislation the association can support or oppose.
For Clifford, politics and the law intersect. “The whole point of being a trial lawyer, as I view it, is to vindicate the rights of an individual who has been harmed by someone else,” he says. “It turns out that’s quite compatible with my view of why people are politically active—to stand up for the rights of people who are not otherwise able to speak for themselves in the state Capitol, or at the national level.”
Just don’t ask him to run for office himself. “I’m too much of a coward,” he says.