Steven A. Levine, who passed away Jan. 4, 2020, was State Bar president 2006-07.
Jan. 8, 2020 – He is described by friends as someone who cared deeply about the law and about friendships, and as a man with a great sense of humor who never said an unkind word.
He is also known as a lawyer who advocated his entire career for what he believed in – including a voluntary State Bar.
Steven A. Levine, 71, former president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and a Madison lawyer, passed away Jan. 4, 2020.
“On behalf of the State Bar, we offer deep condolences to Steve’s family and his friends,” said State Bar President Jill Kastner.
Levine was the first government lawyer to serve as State Bar president. He served as president 2006-07, elected as a petition candidate for the president-elect race in 2005. Levine served several terms on the State Bar Board of Governors and on various State Bar committees over the years.
In 2006, upon taking office as president, a July 2006 Wisconsin Lawyer article described him as “not afraid to stick his neck out” on issues, and that he wanted “more diverse opinions” in bar-related matters. “Whether you agree with me or not, don’t be afraid to say something,” he is quoted in the article. “I want diversity, and I want people to come up with new ideas, because sometimes an idea thought to be far-out in the beginning becomes legitimate later on."
Deciding to be a lawyer in high school, Levine graduated from Georgetown University Law School in 1973 and earned a Masters of Law from the U.W. Law School in 1984.
After obtaining his law degree at Georgetown, Levine worked as a Wisconsin Supreme Court law clerk for Justice Robert W. Hansen, before serving as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He returned to Madison, worked briefly as a state Supreme Court reporter of decisions, and in 1975 took an attorney position at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC). Levine retired as assistant chief counsel of the PSC in 2011, and recently taught a seminar on administrative law at U.W. Law School. He was a member of the Board of Bar Examiners starting in 2017.
Aiming to ‘Get It Right’
Mike Varda worked with Levine at the PSC as assistant general counsel. “Steve was great to work with,” Varda said. “He never spoke an unkind word and had a sense of humor that kept you laughing.”
Levine cared about his relationship with coworkers, and cared deeply about the law. “He was always aiming to ‘get it right,’” Varda said about Levine’s work.“Steve was a model of kindness and courage.”
Jim Thiel, who served two terms on the Board of Governors, got to know Levine when Thiel served in the same building as legal counsel for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. “We would share thoughts on law, State Bar, government, life in general,” Thiel said. Theil often drove with Levine to State Bar meetings and other events.
Thiel said Levine was a “constant friend who exuded kindness and good humor. I never heard him speak a harsh word even against those who often opposed his valiant efforts for a voluntary bar.”
“Bottom line is, we shared a deep interest in law and government, and in warm friendships,” Thiel said.
Service to the Bar
In addition to serving as State Bar president 2006-07, Levine served on a variety of committees, including three years on the board of the Wisconsin Law Foundation. He is a Class of 2013 Wisconsin Law Foundation Fellow. He also represented District 9 on the Board of Governors 2012-14.
“Steve was a master attorney who delighted in the process and the search for fairness and truth,” said Thiel.
Milwaukee attorney Nick Zales served with Levine on the Board of Governors, including when Levine was president. “He was a real gentleman lawyer,” Zales said. “And while his passion was for the voluntary bar, I believe his real passion was service to the members of our bar. He came to every board meeting well prepared, he was a very active participant on the Board. The Bar is better for his service."
Challenging the Status Quo
Levine long championed a voluntary State Bar of Wisconsin, one in which lawyers could choose whether to belong or not. Under Wisconsin Supreme Court rules regulating the State Bar and its members, all practicing lawyers must be members of the State Bar and pay annual membership dues.
Over the decades, Levine litigated the voluntary bar cause as a plaintiff in federal court and through petitions to the state supreme court.
In 2005, Levine ran and won for State Bar president on the voluntary bar platform. He expressed his views on the voluntary bar issue in his monthly president’s column in Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.
Though unsuccessful in his bid for a voluntary bar, Levine’s stance created awareness of a perspective that members have long debated and discussed in Wisconsin’s legal community.
“A diverse membership has diverse opinions,” State Bar President Jill Kastner said. “Not everyone agrees on the path forward. Steve’s advocacy positively influenced the organization as a passionate advocate for attorneys with disabilities and a vigilant steward of membership dues.”
Levine was also a proponent of extending Wisconsin’s diploma privilege to graduates of ABA-accredited law schools outside Wisconsin, as a matter of equality.
Wisconsin is the only state that allows admission to practice law without passing a bar exam for those who graduate from one of Wisconsin’s two law schools.
Levine also pushed for rule changes that would permit an applicant for admission on bar examination to use the score obtained on a Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) previously taken in another jurisdiction.
The MBE is uniformly administered in most states. In 2010, Wisconsin began allowing transfers of MBE scores, which reduced the burden for bar exam test takers seeking admission to practice in Wisconsin.