April 19, 2021 – At last Friday’s State Bar of Wisconsin Board of Governors meeting, board member Erik Guenther voiced reservations about holding an upcoming Board of Governors meeting in Kenosha, scheduled for September 2021.
Guenther, who grew up in Kenosha, moved to relocate the scheduled Kenosha meeting in light of racially charged events involving Kenosha law enforcement.
“I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong answer on this issue,” said Guenther, a Nonresident Lawyer Division (NLRD) representative on the board. “But having a full discussion is important.”
Guenther said he reached a “tipping point” after a recent announcement that the police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back last August will face no internal discipline and is back on duty. The shooting left Blake, a Black man, paralyzed.
An independent investigator, former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, concluded the Kenosha officer’s actions were justified and no criminal charges were filed. Recently, an internal investigation found the officer did not violate any department policies.
Last Friday, Guenther asked the board to engage in a full discussion before making a final decision. Many board members expressed opinions, including Dist. 1 Gov. Joe Cardamone of Kenosha, who has lived there for 22 years and serves a Kenosha County Corporation Counsel. He encouraged the board to keep its Kenosha meeting.
“I understand that people of good intent and good will are struggling with this,” Cardamone said. “I hope that ultimately, what people view as the possible good that could come out of this will outweigh the concerns that they may have.”
As a precursor to the Kenosha meeting (Sept. 22-23, 2021), the State Bar is scheduled to host a free expungement clinic at the Italian American Society in Kenosha, Sept. 21, in partnership with Legal Action of Wisconsin and the Kenosha County Bar Association.
The clinic is an opportunity for area residents who have a conviction or arrest record to learn more about their legal rights and their eligibility to remove or seal that information.
Last Friday, the board confirmed its commitment and intent, while in Kenosha, to engage community leaders on racial justice issues and support minority-owned businesses in Kenosha. Guenther’s motion to relocate the meeting failed.
Kenosha Selected Amidst 2020 Protests
The State Bar’s Board of Governors consists of 52 elected members representing the State Bar membership in 16 districts. The board is the organization’s policy-making body and directs the affairs and activities of the State Bar staff.
The State Bar has long worked to address disparities in Wisconsin’s justice system, including issues related to expungement, bail reform, juvenile justice, civil legal aid funding, exoneree compensation, and adequate investment in the justice system.
In June 2020, then-State Bar President Jill Kastner expressed a commitment to take actionable steps toward addressing racial injustice by appointing a Racial Justice Leadership Group. The group explores ways in which the State Bar can be a partner in combatting racial injustice while promoting equal justice, and diversity and inclusion.
The State Bar’s executive leadership chose Kenosha as the site of the September 2021 board meeting amid the events of last summer, including protests against police brutality and racial injustice in Kenosha following the Jacob Blake shooting.
Leadership consulted the Racial Justice Leadership Group in making that decision, concluding a Kenosha meeting presented an opportunity to engage local leaders and signaled the organization’s commitment to issues of racial justice.
“All along, our thought was that by going there, we would be part of a positive discussion and positive force of change,” said State Bar President Kathy Brost.
“It would be easy to back away. But’s it’s important for us to have these discussions there, and invite local leaders and legislators. It’s an action that can make a difference.”
Despite Concerns, Board Supports Kenosha Meeting Location
Guenther raised the issue after the Kenosha Police Department recently cleared officer Rusten Sheskey of any wrongdoing in the Jacob Blake shooting.
Guenther said if the board visits Kenosha, it must be clear where the State Bar stands, through community dialogue and action, including support for Black-owned businesses.
State Bar Executive Director Larry Martin noted the State Bar is already working with the Kenosha County Bar Association to identify minority-owned and non-profit businesses that can help with catering and venues the board may visit.
State Bar President-elect Cheryl Daniels, who becomes president July 1, said visiting Kenosha in September is not only appropriate, but also vital.
“These racial reckonings are happening everywhere, ever since the founding of our country, and we are still grappling with these issues,” Daniels said.
“To promote change, we have to do the hard work. Actions speak louder than words. We are going to do a number of other things there to make our visit meaningful.”
Daniels noted the expungement clinic, as well as a training on implicit bias that Kenosha area lawyers can join. “We will all learn important tools for change,” she said.
Alexander Lodge, the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers Association (WAAL) liaison to the board, said it is vitally important that any State Bar funds be spent on Black-owned, local businesses if visiting Kenosha.
“We also need to highlight the actionable things we are doing in this space, aside from the expungement clinic,” Lodge said. “That includes meeting with local leaders, and highlighting our public policy initiatives on things like police and expungement reform.”
Lodge’s comments echoed those of State Bar Secretary Kristen Hardy, former WAAL president, who said the State Bar must be intentional about engaging with the Kenosha community, including a possible panel discussion, and supporting Black businesses.
Dist. 13 Gov. Robert Barrington, managing attorney for the Dodge County District Attorney’s Office, supported the Kenosha meeting location. “We are lawyers, and lawyers go to places where there is injustice,” Barrington said.