All too often, state government, particularly the legislative process, appears to many people to be an insider’s game. Most people don’t envision affecting state laws, let alone know how to get involved, even if they wanted to. However, there are many ways for “outsiders” to be a part of the process, and several members of the State Bar of Wisconsin had that opportunity this last year by participating in legislative study committees.
In alternating years, the Wisconsin Legislature creates roughly a dozen study committees, bipartisan groups tasked with researching and proposing solutions to current issues before it. These study committees consist of legislators and members of the public, with an application process open to anyone with interest or expertise in the committee’s subject matter.
In 2018, several State Bar members, either currently or previously serving on the Children and the Law and the Family Law lobbying sections, participated on two different study committees. For six months, these attorneys, judges, and commissioners devoted a significant amount of time to improving state statutes related to minor guardianship and child placement and child support by sharing their practical experience and expert knowledge with legislators aiming to successfully address existing problems with the law. In the end, these groups recommended more than a dozen legislative proposals and supreme court rule petitions, which either have already been introduced or are expected to be in the coming weeks.
After experiencing how study committees work, State Bar members felt that the legislative process not only had been demystified but were encouraged in their ability to contribute to the process going forward. “The combination of legislators and professionals working together to develop legislative solutions in a mutually respectful atmosphere was both a rewarding and satisfying experience,” said attorney Henry Plum, a member of the Children and the Law Section who worked on a study committee. “I encourage other State Bar members to join in the legislative process.”
Legislators also appreciated the expertise State Bar members bring to the table, with committee chairs acknowledging their contributions when presenting the group’s work to the Joint Legislative Council, the final step in the study committee process. “We were incredibly fortunate to have a team of true experts assisting us on the Study Committee on Minor Guardianships,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, who chaired one of the study committees. “They brought with them decades of experience and insights that were invaluable when crafting legislation to address this incredibly complex issue.”
Legislative study committees are not the only way our members can contribute at the State Capitol. I encourage you to learn from the members who participated in this process, and speak with your local representative or senator about ways to get involved, particularly if you see a shortcoming with current law and have a credible solution for resolving the problem. Legislators recognize lawyers are experts in their fields, and, as our members discovered, legislators are more than willing to listen.
The combination of legislators and professionals working together to develop legislative solutions in a mutually respectful atmosphere was both a rewarding and satisfying experience.