Published in 2023 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
By Mark Schaaf on November 13, 2023
When Doug Poland grew up in Whitefish Bay in the ’70s and ’80s, politics wasn’t a big topic of conversation. While it was home to people of all political stripes, Wisconsin wasn’t an especially polarized state, he remembers.
“I grew up in a Wisconsin where, from what I could see, partisan politics didn’t hamstring the state,” Poland says. “Governors, whether they were Republicans or Democrats, members of the state Legislature, whether they were Republicans or Democrats, were driven by what was good policy for the state of Wisconsin.”
After graduating law school in 1994, Poland spent the first 17 years of his career working in apolitical commercial litigation, handling cases ranging from products liability and shareholder disputes to securities fraud. All that changed in 2010, when a GOP midterm election wave sent Scott Walker to the governor’s office and large conservative majorities to both chambers of the Legislature. Massive protests over a collective-bargaining bill soon roiled the state, while lawmakers installed new legislative maps that helped solidify their majorities for years to come.
“This completely new way of doing government in Wisconsin that came into place—where a party was going to seize power for itself, turn its back on policies that had endured in Wisconsin for decades, and govern only for their own constituents and not for the good of the state as a whole—I found that upsetting,” Poland says.
His passion swung his legal focus to election and voting-related cases, starting with lawsuits against the new legislative districts. Suddenly Poland found himself embroiled in legal battles—including a U.S. Supreme Court case—concerning the tenets of American democracy. Today, Poland is seen as a preeminent attorney on Wisconsin redistricting, and he co-founded a legal organization dedicated to returning Wisconsin to its democratic roots.
“Fair government that reflects the will of the people—and not the preferences of politicians who self-select what the districts are going to be—is what governs the state,” Poland says.
Poland wasn’t thinking about law while completing his undergraduate history degree at Northwestern. The plan, at that time, was to eventually get his Ph.D. and teach history. But an advisor told him he didn’t fit the mold of a history professor and suggested law instead.
“I, of course, did what most 22 year-olds do, which is to totally disregard that,” Poland says.
So he entered graduate school, while also working as a paralegal in a small commercial litigation firm. He dropped out of the former after a semester, but stayed at the latter for two and a half years before deciding, “law really was for me.”
Still, the history background has proved valuable.
“In many ways, the practice of law is not dissimilar to history,” says Poland, who graduated from Loyola University Chicago. “You’re researching, you’re forming a thesis, and then you’re writing to support that thesis. It’s not as strong advocacy necessarily as what we do in the law, but nevertheless you’re certainly advocating for these theses you have.”
Poland spent the first part of his career at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, working on commercial and class action cases. One of those was a lawsuit involving former Department of Energy contractors who operated a facility near Denver called Rocky Flats, which manufactured components used in nuclear weapons. There were to classes: one was nearby landowners suing former contractors over diminution of property value due to hazardous materials released into the environment, and the other was residents alleging the releases caused them to be at an enhanced risk of latent disease.
“So they wanted the court to impose a program of medical monitoring … to set aside a large amount of money so the people could go in and see doctors on an annual basis and be monitored to see if they would develop any of the diseases—cancers, primarily—that were linked with the kinds of radioactive materials that they claimed were released into the environment,” Poland recalls.
Poland worked with the historian of the Atomic Energy Commission (later renamed the Department of Energy) to develop a historic explanation for what his clients had done there. “I was able to take this love and experience I had studying history and apply it in a legal context. It was a fascinating thing to be able to do,” Poland says.
The 2005 trial lasted roughly four months, ending with a judgment against Poland’s clients and ultimately resolving in a settlement roughly a decade later. It was also in 2005 that Poland moved to Madison, where his wife had grown up, and joined the local office of Godfrey & Kahn. By then, he was handling a full spectrum of commercial cases, including property disputes, breach of contract cases, shareholder disputes, environmental litigation, and real estate matters.
By 2011, his firm was involved in a pair of redistricting cases: one in federal court challenging new legislative maps, and another in Kenosha County. Needing someone who knew their way around a courtroom, and quickly, because the redistricting cases were fast-tracked due to the need for maps before the next election, the firm turned to Poland. The timing worked out, so he agreed to be lead attorney on both.
In the early 2010s, the attention given to redistricting was a fraction of what it is now. Poland remembers only a few media outlets covering those cases.
“It’s amazing to think back on it now, but there was near total disinterest throughout the state of Wisconsin,” he recalls.
But Poland got an inside view of gerrymandering’s ugly results and decided it was an area where he could make a difference in his home state.
“My wife and I basically lived in Chicago for two full decades, and when I left Chicago, I thought I was leaving behind some of the corrupt and machine politics of the big city and coming up to clean Wisconsin,” Poland says.
“This was the place we decided to raise our kids. Not the Wisconsin that I grew up with and I knew, with its commitment to good government and clean government and policies that work for benefit of the people. Now that was all changing. And that really got to me.”
That was one of the motivating factors for Poland to get involved with Gill v. Whitford. The case was filed in 2015 by a group of Wisconsin voters who claimed the state’s Assembly district map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. This came on the heels of a 2012 election in which Democrats received a majority of votes for the Assembly, yet Republicans claimed 60 of the chamber’s 99 seats.
Poland’s team won in the lower courts, marking the first time in three decades a map was struck down over partisan bias. At the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the justices ruled unanimously that the plaintiffs did not have standing and sent the case back to the lower courts. Then, before a new trial could be set, the ruling came in Rucho v. Common Cause that stated partisan gerrymandering was a political issue that federal courts don’t have the power to adjudicate, unlike gerrymanders based on factors such as race. Gill v. Whitford was dismissed.
Though the case ended in 2019, Poland speaks about the decision as though it came yesterday. He remains frustrated about how, he believes, the court misrepresented his side’s arguments. “One of the comments that the court had made was that we were arguing for proportional representation, which in fact was not true. We were arguing for partisan symmetry, which is a different issue,” he says.
“Districts should be drawn such that, if Republicans get 53 percent of the vote and can get a majority, then Democrats should also be able to get a majority if they can get 53 percent of the votes from the same districts. It’s equality of opportunity.”
The court also indicated that determining partisan gerrymanders was impractical, though Poland’s group presented—and lower court judges accepted—a mathematical formula that could be applied to tell when a redistricting map had gone too far.
“It’s like telling me a design for a jet plane will never work … and then there it is flying above my head,” Poland says. “It was very frustrating.”
Though unsuccessful, the case steered Poland’s career more fully toward election and political issues in Wisconsin.
Paul M. Smith, the Campaign Legal Center attorney who argued Gill v. Whitford—plus 21 other cases before SCOTUS—recalls attending a state Bar event and being amazed that Poland appeared to know everyone in the room—and vice-versa.
“He has become an institution in the legal community,” says Smith, who feels Poland’s affability helps but it’s his passion that sets him apart. “He’s very committed to values of democracy and fairness. He has really devoted his more recent years to making sure that democracy works as well as it can in Wisconsin.”
Jeff Mandell followed the Gill case closely, and as he and Poland became friends, it quickly became clear they were kindred spirits, Mandell says. Not only did both lawyers have a commercial litigation background, but Mandell practiced at Bartlit Beck in Chicago, a spin-off firm from Kirkland & Ellis, so they were trained in similar ways. They found they were like-minded in valuing not just the outcome of litigation, but the way they litigate it.
So when Mandell began thinking about the idea of creating a nonprofit organization focused on preserving democracy, Poland was one of the first people with whom he spoke. Given Wisconsin’s swing-state status, Mandell says that conservative-aligned groups have used the state to test “radical, anti-democracy ideas,” necessitating an organized and strategic centralized response. In 2020, Mandell and Poland co-founded Law Forward, which started as an idea of “a progressive organization that would defend Wisconsin from rightwing attacks and grow our state’s proud, progressive traditions,” according to its website.
In one of the first cases Mandell and Poland worked on together, they represented Service Employees International Union and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, respectively, which sought to reinstate more than 31,000 voters whose registrations had been deactivated. In 2021, the matter became a federal lawsuit with LWV represented by Fair Elections Center, Law Forward and Stafford Rosenbaum. It ended in a settlement a year later, and the voters at issue were reinstated.
“All we wanted was to make sure they were restored to proper status,” Mandell adds.
Celina Stewart, chief counsel of LWV of the United States, calls Poland “a great legal talent [who] has become a trusted partner in furthering our mission to empower voters and defend democracy.”
Redistricting has stayed at the forefront for both Law Forward and the state.
“There is no lawyer in the state of Wisconsin who knows more about gerrymandering and redistricting than Doug does,” says Mandell. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the state and the maps and the law in this area.”
The key is that Poland is able to turn that knowledge into courtroom wins, which Mandell says is rare.
“There are plenty of smart and creative lawyers who can spin off theories,” Mandell says. “One of the things that makes working with Doug such a pleasure is that he has the follow through and the know-how to make it all fit within the rules of civil procedure—to figure out how to use those rules to make the case as strong as possible.”
When Gov. Tony Evers defeated Walker in 2018, it ended unified control of the state, Poland says. But the battles over maps, election rules, and other political issues continue to rage. A tipping point came last spring, when control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped from conservative to liberal with the election of Janet Protasiewicz.
As Poland spoke over the summer, the impact of the shift remained to be seen, but he says the court in the past had “taken a more restrictive view of voting rights in Wisconsin,” and he expects that to change. Poland and others wasted no time putting the new court to the test. Protasiewicz was sworn in on the evening of Aug. 1; the next day, Law Forward and affiliated groups filed a new lawsuit challenging legislative maps.
Campaign Legal Center is one of the organizations involved with the case. Smith says state courts across the country will likely a play a bigger role in such cases moving forward. In Wisconsin, Poland’s expertise is critical. “If you’re going to have a case in Wisconsin challenging a district map, or any other major case in Wisconsin,” Smith says, “he would be a person you would want on your team.”
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