Vol. 76, No. 4, April
Wisconsin Lawyers in Congress
Legal training aids Wisconsin's congressional delegates in their work
on various committees and across all issues ... from analyzing problems
from multiple perspectives to evaluating the effect of laws in the real
world. Read what Wisconsin's delegates think lawyers should watch for in
the current session.
For some attorneys, a law degree is a prelude to a congressional
career. Fifty-nine percent of current U.S. senators are law school
graduates, while attorneys account for 43 percent of the House's voting
members, according to the American Bar Association.
Wisconsin's numbers hit close to the overall ratio in the Senate,
where one of the state's two senators is an attorney. In the House,
Wisconsin considerably outpaces the national proportion, as five of
eight, or 62.5 percent, of its representatives are lawyers.
Recently Wisconsin Lawyer talked to these six attorneys,
plus Tom Barrett, who returned to private life last year after five
terms in the House. We asked them how their legal training aids them in
their work in Congress, and what they think Wisconsin lawyers should
watch for in the current session.
Many routes lead people to Congress, notes Russ Feingold, "but for
me, there's nothing like the fact that I have legal training." Feingold
practiced full time with a Madison law firm for six years and served in
the state Legislature for 10 years before his election to the U.S.
Legal training "comes in handy every day," he says, "especially on
the Judiciary Committee, and also on the Foreign Relations Committee
when we're dealing with issues of international law and treaties, or
comparative law between countries. When I'm in a tight situation, I'm
happy to have that legal background."
As just one example of how legal experience proves useful, when the
Senate grappled with bankruptcy reform last year, "I was able to talk
with some understanding, even though I'm not a bankruptcy expert, with
bankruptcy lawyers, creditors' lawyers, debtors' lawyers, bankruptcy
judges, and trustees," Feingold says. "I could summarize what they said
in the Judiciary Committee, and I felt that gave me more credibility
when I offered amendments to try to limit some of the unfair aspects of
Immigration issues, malpractice reform, and another attempt at
bankruptcy reform are some of the legislative issues lawyers need to
watch in coming months, Feingold says. "There's also the danger of
unwise amendments to the Constitution and tinkering with the Bill of
Rights," he adds, "such as the so-called flag desecration amendment. And
the Justice Department will try to bring out another USA Patriot Act
[Feingold was the only senator to vote against the first one] that will
include, we think, greater domestic surveillance and intelligence
gathering that may be questionable."
Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison research,
writing, and editing service. She is a frequent contributor to area
Also this session, Feingold has reintroduced the death penalty
moratorium bill, and he plans to reintroduce a bill to abolish the death
penalty. He authored both of these bills. "I'm not going to kid anyone
that we think these are going to pass in this Congress and under this
president," Feingold says. "But I think the movement against the death
penalty is growing."
Looking back at her days in the state Assembly, Tammy Baldwin recalls
that there, being a lawyer was a rarity. "I think at the time about 10
percent of state legislators were lawyers," she says. "That gave me
tremendous opportunities to assume early leadership roles on committees
where legal skills were helpful." For instance, she served on the
Assembly's Criminal Justice Committee and the Elections, Constitutional
Law, and Corrections Committee.
Six years in the Assembly, combined with her legal education and
three years practicing law in a small Madison firm, created "a great
skill set to bring to Congress," says Baldwin. She adds that as a member
of the House Judiciary Committee, "almost every topic we deal with taps
Several issues of particular interest to lawyers will come before the
House Judiciary Committee and Congress in the next few months, Baldwin
notes. These include medical malpractice reform, bankruptcy reform,
asbestos litigation issues, review of the Digital Millennium Copyright
Act, and review of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act as it affects privacy
notification requirements for attorneys.
As of late February, prospects loomed of a second USA Patriot Act,
which could further extend law enforcement and intelligence-gathering
agencies' authority. "I think the first [USA Patriot Act] overreached to
begin with," Baldwin notes, "so I'm concerned about a second
She also expects death penalty moratorium legislation to resurface in
this session. Baldwin coauthored last year's House bill. "It's too early
to tell the impact of the decisions made in Illinois," she notes,
referring to Gov. George Ryan's release of four wrongly convicted
death-row inmates and commutation of 167 other Illinois death sentences.
"My hope would be that we take seriously the information uncovered there
[that shows] that clearly mistakes were made along the way."
Now back in private law practice in Milwaukee, Tom Barrett served
five terms in the House of Representatives. "As much as I loved that
job, I knew in my heart of hearts I had to come home," says Barrett,
noting that he and his wife have four children aged 10 and under, all of
whom remained in Wisconsin while he was in Washington.
Prior to being a congressman, Barrett clerked for two years for the
late federal Judge Robert Warren in Wisconsin's Eastern District, and he
was in private practice full time for two years before serving eight
years in the state Legislature.
As a congressman, his legal background proved most useful in terms of
knowing "how to look at both sides of an issue," Barrett says. Possibly
the most severe test of that ability occurred in his few months on the
House Judiciary Committee in 1998, during which he dealt with only one
issue: President Bill Clinton's impeachment.
Barrett landed on the Judiciary Committee due to a string of events.
After Sonny Bono's death, another Republican filled Bono's spot on the
committee. Then, when Bono's widow was elected to fill her late
husband's seat, also as a Republican, she requested the same committee
appointments her husband had had, resulting in a one-person Republican
edge. The Democratic leadership recruited Barrett to restore the
Judiciary Committee's bipartisan balance.
"After impeachment was over, I left the committee," Barrett explains,
"and Tammy Baldwin took my spot." Barrett moved on to another committee
in which he had a strong interest, Energy and Commerce. Assignment to
this committee was exclusive, meaning Barrett could not serve on any
others at the same time.
Currently, Barrett is with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, where he
represents companies and local government units seeking government
grants or contracts. "We look at such issues as health care and trying
to get more funding for the arts," Barrett says. "It's sort of a hybrid
of what I've done in the past."
After six years in the state Assembly and now in his third term in
the U.S. House, Mark Green says he's learned that "the greatest danger
for legislators on any level is to fail to realize that legislation
isn't implemented in a vacuum."
Green's law degree plus three years of full-time and six years of
part-time private practice help him "evaluate legislation better," he
says, "in terms of what its effect will be in the real world" and to
devise ways to improve the law. Among key upcoming legislative debates
of specific interest to attorneys, Green lists bankruptcy reform and
changes in laws pertaining to crimes against minors.
Green was one of three Wisconsin representatives (along with Baldwin
and Sensenbrenner) who grappled with the USA Patriot Act in the House
Judiciary Committee. Now in his second term on that committee, he joined
it "because it deals with so many of the issues I care about," Green
says. "I've done a lot of work in the area of criminal justice reform
[in the state Legislature], and that continues to be an area of interest
to me. Obviously, I could not have foreseen all the antiterrorism work
we'd be doing."
Indeed, the Judiciary Committee is typically "at the eye of the
storm," Green says, in dealing with controversial legislative issues,
ranging from faith-based initiatives to terrorism. As for the latter, "I
think we had no choice but to modernize our wiretap and surveillance
laws," he says. "But there's nothing to say that what we did is perfect.
We built in a sunset clause [some provisions of the law expire Dec. 31,
2005] for a reason. Congress must go back and make sure that what we
have done - and what the Department of Justice has done - is in line
with our civil liberties."
Ron Kind describes his lawyer background as "a tremendous asset" in
Congress. "The analytical skills you learn in law school and apply in
practice," he says, "help a lot in drafting and interpreting the law,
and also in anticipating some of the traps of the language of the law,
to make it workable and practical."
Before heading to Congress, Kind was a corporate litigator with a
Milwaukee firm for two years and then returned to La Crosse to join the
district attorney's office and serve as a special prosecutor in western
Those prosecutorial skills come in handy when cross-examining people
appearing before House oversight committees. "It helps to be able to ask
questions and pin them down with answers," Kind notes, "so you don't get
the general, political nonresponse-response that often happens at these
In coming months, watch for a push for medical malpractice reform
legislation and, after that, product liability reform, Kind says. "One
of the first things Bush did as governor in Texas was major tort
reform," he notes. "That was his hallmark legislation right off the
block. I think he wants to do the same at the federal level. We could
end up with a one-size-fits-all approach across the country."
New federal product liability laws would preempt state laws, and Kind
expects that to be unpopular in states that have taken their own action.
Wisconsin, for instance, passed a product liability law that included a
victim compensation fund, which Kind says is unlikely to be part of a
As a congressman, or a lawyer, it helps to keep your sense of humor
intact, Kind notes. "I chuckle," he says, "at the way laws are drafted
for sheer political purposes, even though they're in blatant violation
of the Constitution. But we're all sworn to uphold the Constitution, and
I treat that oath seriously. Sometimes it gets me in trouble
politically. I see laws that are apple-pie issues, that would be
politically popular, but that violate the Constitution. I say no to
them. But good legal analysis doesn't always make for good politics back
When Tom Petri joined Congress 34 years ago, he arrived with diverse
legal experiences. After finishing law school, he became the first law
clerk for Judge James Doyle, father of Wisconsin's current governor. He
next signed up for a three-year stint in the Peace Corps in Somalia,
where he was part of a three-person legal team that trained public
officials in government administration.
Returning to the states, Petri served for a year on a government
reorganization committee in the Nixon White House. And in 1970 he
returned to Fond du Lac to practice law, first with a firm and then as a
solo practitioner, before being elected to the Wisconsin Senate in
Legal training develops the ability to analyze problems from multiple
perspectives - a useful skill in Congress, Petri notes. "It's easy to
pass a law," he says, "but the devil is in the details. Many times
something isn't thought of, and the next thing you know someone is
inconvenienced, or worse, because you didn't think it through. You try
to solve one problem and create another somewhere else. I think law
practice makes you very aware of that."
Besides the upcoming legislative issues mentioned elsewhere in this
article, Petri points to a consumer issue that will get attention in the
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for which he is vice
chair. Fraudulent moving company practices - such as drastically raising
fees after moving household goods and then holding those goods hostage
until the customer pays up -- have become a prevalent problem. The
federal Surface Transportation Board has jurisdiction over interstate
movers but no resources to enforce against abuses. State attorneys
general and state consumer protection agencies receive consumer
complaints but have no authority to act on them. The current situation
leaves consumers in legal limbo. "We'll be working with state attorneys
general and other state associations to work out a solution," Petri
Steering toward politics early in his legal career, James
Sensenbrenner won election to the state Legislature just months after
finishing law school. During the first five of his 10 years in the
Legislature, he also practiced law in Cedarburg. A legal background
helps in political life because, he says, "one of the things lawyers are
trained to do is to anticipate the other side's arguments. Then you use
those arguments to hone your own arguments so that they can be sharper
and more convincing."
"Specifically, I've been on the House Judiciary Committee for all the
24 years I've been in Congress," he adds. "My legal training allows me
to better deal with statutory interpretations so that what the committee
writes, and what passes and is enacted into law, precisely states what
Sensenbrenner has chaired the House Judiciary Committee since January
2001. He says he joined the committee initially because of his legal
background, his interest in the issues the committee handles, and his
experience on the Judiciary Committee in the state Legislature.
In the upcoming months, Sensenbrenner envisions attempts to pass a
medical liability reform bill patterned after the California law, which
would place no cap on economic damages, but would limit punitive damages
to twice the amount of economic damages. Noneconomic damages would be
capped at $250,000. Also in the lineup, he adds, is a class-action
reform bill that would "establish federal uniform standards for
certifying class actions."
Also, Sensenbrenner says he wants to "take another run at bankruptcy
reform. I think the present system has been abused by many and been used
by some as a financial planning tool."