May 19, 2021 – Join the State Bar of Wisconsin in celebrating those who make a difference in the legal profession and in their communities. Recognized by their peers and colleagues, these jurists, lawyers, law students, and legal workers are celebrated for their leadership.
Since 1993, State Bar members have gathered to honor the contributions of those in Wisconsin’s legal community. Typically, these award recipients are honored in person at the Member Recognition Celebration during the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference in June, but this year’s event will once again be virtual. Please watch your email for information on viewing in the award presentations.
Please join us now in giving these recipients a round of applause for their dedication to the legal profession, to improving the practice of law and the administration of justice in Wisconsin, and to taking leadership in their communities.
Judges Rod. W. Smeltzer and L. Edward Stengel: Lifetime Jurists
Judges Rod. W. Smeltzer and L. Edward Stengel are the 2021 recipients of the Bench and Bar Committee Lifetime Jurist Award. The award recognizes jurists who, during their tenure on the bench, were fair and impartial, demonstrated high ideals and personal character along with outstanding, long-term judicial service.
This year, the committee presenting this award to two exceptional judges whose contributions exceed the qualifications for this prestigious award.
Judge L. Edward Stengel has served for nearly 36 years as a circuit court judge in Sheboygan County. Retiring in July, he maintains a high quality of fairness and justice in his courtroom. He has mentored countless lawyers and judges, is widely respected among his peers, and has made a tremendous impact as a judge on his local community. He was instrumental in launching the Sheboygan County Alcohol and Drug Treatment Court in 2016. Find out more about Judge Stengel.
Retiring in July, Dunn County Circuit Court Judge Rod Smeltzer will complete 24 years on the bench. Those who know him say he demonstrates the epitome of the work ethic for judges. Among many achievements, Judge Smeltzer was instrumental in building Dunn County’s Criminal Justice Collaborating Council, improving the effectiveness of the county’s criminal justice system by connecting all stakeholders in the system. He demonstrates both judicial leadership as well as “common sense in the courtroom,” say his nominators. Beginning Aug. 1, 2021, the county will add a third judicial branch – a goal he has worked for over many years. Find out more about Judge Smeltzer.
Judge Ralph Ramirez: Judge of the Year
Judge Ralph Ramirez of Waukesha County Circuit Court is recipient of the Bench and Bar Committee’s Judge of the Year Award. The award recognizes an outstanding circuit court judge who has improved the judicial system during the past year through leadership in advancing the quality of justice, judicial education, or innovative programs.
Judge Ramirez, say those who know him, is a “true leader” and often a person his peers turn to for advice. He frequently volunteers to step in and help where needed. During the pandemic, he held many preliminary hearings when his calendar allowed, to ease the caseload that was backed up due to COVID-19. Find out more about Judge Ramirez.
Rebecca E. Rapp: Gordon Sinykin Award of Excellence
Rebecca E. Rapp of Ascendium Education Group in Madison is the recipient of the 2021 Gordon Sinykin Award of Excellence from the Wisconsin Law Foundation. This award recognizes a lawyer, law firm, or group of lawyers for their work on an individual law-related education or public service project.
Rapp is known for her devotion to public service and pro bono work, an integral part of her legal practice. In addition to initiating free legal clinics in the community, she is also passionate about education and keeping students in school so that they get the education needed for better jobs. She volunteers with several local and national access to justice initiatives aimed at providing civil legal services to those who cannot afford them. An author, Rapp has written columns on pro bono work for the July 2018 and March 2019 issues of Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.
Christa Westerberg and Aaron Dumas: Charles Dunn Wisconsin Lawyer Author Award
Presented by the State Bar Communications Committee, which serves as the editorial board for Wisconsin Lawyer magazine, the Hon. Charles Dunn Author Award recognizes writing excellence in the publication. The award was named in honor of Wisconsin’s first Supreme Court chief justice.
This year’s award recipients are Christa Westerberg and Aaron Dumas with Pines Bach, L.L.P., in Madison, for their article, “Social Media, the First Amendment, and Government Actors,” in the January 2020 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.
This timely article on the use of social media by government entities explains the legal issues at play. The authors’ helpful, practical guidelines for accounts that may be considered a public forum are a great resource for citizens and government officials.
Jon Stanek: LRIS Hotline Attorney of the Year
The Hotline Attorney of the Year Award, presented by the Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) Committee, is presented to an attorney or group of attorneys whose commitment to the service is represented by long-term and dedicated participation. Since this public service program’s inception in 1979, attorneys volunteer their evenings to return calls to those needing answers to basic legal questions.
The Hotline Attorney of the Year goes to Jon Stanek of Hudson for his longstanding commitment and dedication to the program. Stanek volunteers for the Lawyer Hotline in Hudson, where he has his solo practice, assisting Wisconsin’s underserved population.
Rebecca Salawdeh and Victor Forberger: Pro Bono Attorneys of the Year
Rebecca Salawdeh and Victor Forberger are recipients of this year’s Pro Bono Attorney of the Year awards. The award, presented by the Legal Assistance Committee, recognizes dedication to the development and delivery of legal services to the poor or those who develop innovative ways to deliver volunteer legal services.
This year, the committee presents the award to two outstanding attorneys who each filled a critical pro bono need in 2020, assisting workers who were unemployed due to the pandemic to obtain unemployment benefits. They also volunteered their time to advise other attorneys on helping clients with their unemployment benefit issues.
Rebecca Salawdeh is a solo practitioner in Wauwatosa whose practice involves representing employees in work-related matters. Salawdeh helped staff Legal Action of Wisconsin’s volunteer unemployment clinic nearly every week during 2020, and assisted more than 125 workers with their unemployment claims and appeals.
Victor Forberger has a solo law practice in Madison, where he practices in labor and employment law. Forberger provided pro bono representation to numerous Wisconsin workers, helping them obtain unemployment benefits to support themselves and their families. He also serves as the supervising attorney for the Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic at the U.W. Law School.
Michelle Velasquez: Dan Tuchscherer Outstanding Public Interest Law Attorney
The 2021 Dan Tuchscherer Outstanding Public Interest Law Attorney is Michelle Velasquez of Milwaukee. The award, given by the State Bar Public Interest Law Section, recognizes a lawyer who embodies the elements of the award, demonstrating a lifetime commitment to working in the public interest, a commitment to volunteerism beyond employment responsibilities, a selfless commitment to helping others, and dedication to helping their community.
Michelle Velasquez is co-founder and managing attorney at Civitas Law Group, a nonprofit firm that bases its fees on a sliding-scale. She has developed strong community partnerships to provide presentations to immigrant communities on various legal topics.
Lucrechia Daye: Ryan Klesh Public Interest Legal Worker
Lucrechia Daye, a paralegal with Legal Action of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, is the recipient of this year’s Public Interest Law Section’s Ryan Klesh Public Interest Legal Worker Award. The award recognizes an individual who captures the essence of Ryan Klesh's selflessness, work ethic, and humor in working to seek justice for low-income neighbors, family, or friends.
Daye is a paralegal in Reentry Legal Services at Legal Action of Wisconsin, where she demonstrates a deep commitment to those she serves in addition to her colleagues. One nominator shared an example of her commitment, when a colleague who was not feeling well and needed to go home, but was incapable of driving. Without hesitation, Daye used her own sick hours to ensure that her colleague would get home safely, then returned to the office to complete her work. This is just one example of her selflessness and kindness.
Michelle Behnke: Senior Lawyers Division Leonard L. Loeb Award
Michelle Behnke of Madison is the recipient of the Senior Lawyers Division’s Leonard L. Loeb Award. The award is given for a lifetime of exceptional contributions to community and the profession, and to further justice for all Wisconsin citizens. The award recognizes the work of a senior lawyer whose outstanding leadership has advanced the fundamental goals of the legal system.
Behnke of Michelle Behnke & Associates is a longstanding State Bar leader. She has served the State Bar in many capacities, including as president from 2004-05. She also was a member of the Young Lawyers Division board of directors from 1992-97, chair of the Diversity Outreach Committee from 1994-99, and State Bar treasurer, 1995-97. In addition, she has served in leadership positions with the American Bar Association, Wisconsin Governor’s Judicial Selection Committee, International Women’s Forum-Wisconsin, and many other organizations.
James Godlewski: Government Lawyers Division Grant F. Langley Service Award
Jim Godlewsi of Neenah is recipient of the 2021 Grant F. Langley Service Award from the Government Lawyers Division (GLD). The award is presented to an attorney with accomplishments in the legal profession who serves not only to the government and citizens, but also other government attorneys. This attorney is someone involved in activities that increase the public’s respect for government lawyers while promoting government legal work as a rewarding career choice.
Godlewski retired in February 2021 from the City of Neenah, where he served as city attorney since 2002. He was actively involved in the GLD throughout his career, serving on its board from 2000-09 and as GLD president from 2005-07.
David Werwie: Nonresident Lawyers Division Founder’s Award
David Werwie of Minneapolis is recipient of the 2021 Nonresident Lawyers Division (NRLD) Founder’s Award, which recognizes a nonresident member who has brought positive change to the NRLD and has actively participated in State Bar activities for many years.
Werwie, with State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company in Minnesota, has been an active leader, board member, and past president of the NRLD. A member of the awards committee noted that “Dave goes above and beyond in everything that he does, and he does it with excellence.”
James Spella: Young Lawyers Division Outstanding Mentor Award
James Spella of West Bend is recipient of the Young Lawyers Division’s Outstanding Mentor Award. The award pays tribute to a Wisconsin attorney with six or more years of practice who has made an exceptional contribution to the life and career of a young attorney.
Spella, a managing partner at Schloemer Law Firm, is “a great mentor, a fair boss, and a fantastic attorney,” say those who nominated him. “The life lessons that we have learned from him through the practice of law have made us who we are as lawyers, as people, and as contributing members to our community.”
Tatiana Shirasaki: Young Lawyers Division Outstanding Young Lawyer Award
Tatiana Shirasaki, with the State Public Defender’s Office in Dodge County, Fond du Lac, is the 2021 Young Lawyers Division’s Outstanding Young Lawyer of the Year. This award is given to a young lawyer who has made an impact in her practice area and in service to the State Bar and to the community.
A 2014 graduate of U.W. Law School, Shirasaki is passionate about assisting underrepresented groups, especially those who do not understand the English language. She translates forms to ensure clients understand the legal process. She also volunteers for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Mock Trial Competition as a judge, and is a volunteer with the State Bar’s Wisconsin Lawyer’s Assistance Program (WisLAP).
Crystal Stonewall and Rachel Roberge: Outstanding Public Interest Law Students
Through its Public Interest Law Student awards, the Public Interest Law Section honors law students who in law school demonstrate a commitment to public interest work, to volunteer work or activism in their community, and to helping others in their communities.
Rachel Roberge of Marquette University Law School is a 2021 graduate who performed more than 150 hours of pro bono work. Roberge also was involved with the Public Interest Law Society during her first year as a law student and interned with Milwaukee Justice Center.
Crystal Stonewall, U.W. Law School 2L, served on the University of Wisconsin Student Advisory boards for the Dean of Students Office and the School of Education. Serving on these boards gave her the opportunity to work collaboratively with university officials and diverse groups of students. They provided her the platform to advocate for students, especially those who felt underrepresented and voiceless. In addition, she regularly volunteers with the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago International Charter School, and with the Madison Metropolitan School District.