Oct. 5, 2016 – He worked as a migrant farmworker, a legal services lawyer, a circuit court judge, a state government lawyer, and litigator – and he is a pioneer Latino lawyer in Wisconsin who has spent many years of his career ensuring access by Spanish-speaking individuals to the legal system.
Judge Ness Flores is the recipient of the Wisconsin Law Foundation's 2016 Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award. The award is given for a lifetime of service to the profession and the community, and will be presented at the 2016 Fellows of the Wisconsin Law Foundation Annual Recognition Dinner in Milwaukee on Oct. 18.
Former circuit court judge and a pioneer in crafting Wisconsin’s migrant farmworker laws, Ness Flores is co-recipient of the Wisconsin Law Foundation’s Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award.
Migrant Working Family
Born in Texas just 15 miles from the Mexico border – his father was from southern Texas, his mother from Mexico – Flores, living in a segregated community, spoke only Spanish until starting school at age 7. His father worked in a factory, but when he was laid off, they came as migrant workers to Wisconsin, where they heard there were jobs available in a canning factory.
"Between the pea-packing season and the corn-packing season, we'd go to Door County and pick cherries," he said.
They stayed in Wisconsin spring to fall, then returned to Texas. The third year, they came to Wisconsin, only to find the canning factory empty and closed. "It was too late to go somewhere else in Wisconsin," he said. They headed instead to Michigan, working in orchards.
After a couple of years repeating that pattern, his parents and sister obtained permanent full-time factory jobs in Belgium, Wisconsin, and later that year, his father got a job at the Kohler Company, where he worked for 25 years. They then moved to Sheboygan in 1955. "I think dad and mom felt we children would have a better chance at success here, away from the segregation and problems of Texas," Flores said.
He also believes in the truth of that – and was the first in his family to go to college, followed by his younger sister.
Flores chose law school while a senior at U.W.-Madison. Earning his undergraduate degree in economics, he realized he wanted to do more. "I didn't feel I was complete – that I had that much to offer an employer," Flores said.
Pondering graduate or law school, he chose the latter. And he chose the school that would allow him to start immediately – Baylor Law School in Waco, Texas. "When I got there, I liked it," and he earned a full scholarship after the first year. "Only bad thing was, I had to take the Wisconsin bar exam!" Flores said.
After graduation, he was hired by Ross Langill, to join a firm in Waukesha – both he and his wife Phyllis had family nearby. "I've resided here ever since," Flores said.
That was 1970. Now, in 2016, he is the father of six children. One, Kyra, followed in his footsteps and is a practicing attorney in Illinois, obtaining her degree from the U.W. Law School. "I had the great pleasure of moving her admission when she graduated," Flores said. "I never pushed my kids to be lawyers. Whatever makes people happy is the most important thing."
Ness Flores served as Waukesha County Circuit Court judge from 1978-1983.
'Help Those Who Need Your Help'
Flores' early years in a migrant labor family came to mind again after he got his first law job in 1970, working as a tax attorney with Langill & Flores Law Firm in Waukesha, partnered with Ross Langill. His younger sister made a remark at that time that he took to heart: "Consider helping those who need your help," she said to him.
When he moved to Waukesha, the city's mayor immediately nominated him to serve on the city's Police and Fire Commission. "That was the start of my career in public service and as a lawyer," Flores said.
The two are compatible, and are, in fact, what a lawyer should be, he said. "You're part of a profession that has a great tradition of public service and giving to the community," despite all the nasty jokes about lawyers to the contrary.
"I've done everything I could to erase those stereotypical jokes about lawyers being money-grabbers," Flores said. "I've tried to pattern my career to better this profession, my clients, and the world around me."
That effort is something he got from his parents, Barbara and Ismael Flores. "Although they were poor, they gave to others all their lives," Flores said.
org sgreen wisbar Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by org sgreen wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
It also changed the course of his career. In 1972, he left his firm to become a public defender for indigent Spanish-speaking people in Milwaukee County, and to help establish a civil legal services program for migrant farmworkers in Wisconsin. That program is now part of Legal Action of Wisconsin. "I'm proud that the program is still existing, still helping migrant farmworkers," Flores said.
Serving next on the Governor's Committee on Migrant Labor, he helped draft and lobbied for the Wisconsin Migrant Labor Act, a comprehensive labor law with protections for migrant farmworkers that is now Wis. Stat. section 103.90-97. Making it part of Wisconsin law took a lot of work – with the protections closely defeated twice before it passed in 1977 on a bipartisan vote. "It was a long struggle," Flores said.
His motivation came while serving as a litigant for farmworkers, when he realized the need for more protections involving camp and labor conditions. "People are recruited to come here under promises of a lot of work, but come up here and have very little work," Flores said. "Of course, they had to pay for housing." Without work, they quickly became indebted to the company. The protections he lobbied for included guarantees for minimum hours of work. "They could have some confidence they would not face travel expenses and not have work once they got there."
In 1978, he was appointed Waukesha County Ciruit Court judge by Acting Gov. Martin Schreiber - Gov. Patrick Lucey had resigned to become ambassador to Mexico. The next April he won an election for the six-year term. By the time he left the position in 1983, he was presiding judge of the division.
In 1983, in the fifth year of his term, a chance meeting with Gov. Tony Earl led to an appointment as chairman of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin. He served three years as chair of the commission, then returned to private practice as a litigator. In 1999, he accepted a part-time position as project director with Legal Action Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Litigation, he says, is a tough gig. "All litigation is tough. Physically and emotionally, it can be very trying," Flores said. He advises young litigators to stay in good physical shape. "You need a lot of stamina," he said, "a lot of emotional tolerance, a lot of moxy, and a lot of discipline."
He is now retired, after transitioning out of legal work starting in 2014. He now spends time with family in Texas and occasionally works as a reserve circuit court judge in Wisconsin.
Ness Flores joins John Skilton as Recipient of 2016 Charles L. Goldberg Award
"The awards committee rarely receives multiple nominations for the Charles L. Goldberg Award, which in any other year, each of which would easily be deserving of the award," says Kevin Lonergan, chair of the awards committee. "This year, when the committee could not decide between two top recipients, the decision was made to recommend both."
Congratulations to our two winners! Find out more about John Skilton in "The Essence of Being a Lawyer: John Skilton Receives Distinguished Service Award," in the Aug. 17, 2016, issue of InsideTrack.
See past winners of the award on WisBar.org.
His career path was not an easy one. "I'm proud that I stuck it out 40 years," he said. He is especially proud of his community service and those he's helped over the years. "At least fifty percent of my clientele was Latino or Hispanic. When I retired, a lot of them really let me know that they appreciated me. That's what makes me proud."
It is his own diligence and his community-mindedness that have prompted his nomination for the Goldberg Award.
"I am surprised and honored," Flores said of the award.
Flores has been a legal services lawyer, a circuit court judge, a state government lawyer, and a private law practitioner. He's successfully litigated hundreds of cases in state and federal courts, including two before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. And that's only part of it, says attorney Michael Reyes of Waukesha.
"Throughout his career, he consistently comported himself ethically and gentlemanly, always striving to represent his clients vigorously while maintaining a civil and cordial relationship with the parties, lawyers, court, and court personnel," Reyes said. "He always sheds a good light on his profession and community."
Flores "is a distinguished lawyer who has earned the respect of the legal community in Wisconsin," says award committee chair Kevin Lonergan, "and is a deserving recipient of the award."
Flores is a leader in the southeastern Wisconsin Hispanic community, said Waukesha County Judge William Domina. "He worked tirelessly to pass the comprehensive migrant farm labor protection law."
Ness Flores, chairman of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, ca. 1985.
On Being a Latino Lawyer
He is aware of the impact being Latino has had on his career. "I know a couple of times, it held me back a little bit," he said. He doesn't dwell on that very much. "I chose to focus more on other factors," Flores said. "I prefer to dwell on what I can do, and to do the best that I can."
To young Latino and Hispanic lawyers, he has this advice: Always be prepared. Pay attention to promptness, to how you dress, how you talk. "Be extra careful, extra good," he said. They will always wonder if you are a good lawyer. "You have to be extra diligent, extra everything. Which may not be fair, but that's the way life is sometimes."
A lot has changed since 1970 – and not just with the technology that lawyers use now.
"I see a lot of Latino and Hispanic lawyers, and they are an inspiration to me. I'm proud of what's coming up behind us," he said.