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    Mark SchleiDe Ette Tomlinson

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 78, No. 8, August 2005


    Letters to the editor: The Wisconsin Lawyer publishes as many letters in each issue as space permits. Please limit letters to 500 words; letters may be edited for length and clarity. Letters should address the issues, and not be a personal attack on others. Letters endorsing political candidates cannot be accepted. Please mail letters to "Letters to the Editor," Wisconsin Lawyer, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158, fax them to (608) 257-4343, or org wislawyer wisbar email them.

    Defective System Led to WisTAF Assessment

    In the past 20 years, the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (WisTAF) has poured nearly one-half million dollars into the ACLU for programs and lawsuits only arguably related to "legal services for the poor," freeing up a like amount for the ACLU to devote to lawsuits and politics undeniably objectionable to many. With the Wisconsin Supreme Court's recent requirement that attorneys make a mandated WisTAF charitable contribution or lose their ability to practice law, each attorney funds lawsuits and programs with which they may disagree and which may well be in conflict with the needs of their clients.

    WisTAF - now with two full-time employees and a rented office - and the assessment are the result of a defective system. The court's growing authoritarian administration is built without any checks and balances, since executive, legislative, and judicial functions reside with one small group of bureaucrats: our virtually unaccountable justices. The premise for the court's expanding regulatory role is built on one sandy foundation upon another. For example, see Justice Prosser's dissent to the WisTAF assessment, which nicely counters the speciousness of the court's action. There is no other agency in this state suffused with so little democracy as is the court system.

    While the State Bar is ostensibly having counsel review the legality of the assessment, at the same time, according to the Bar's public affairs officer, the Bar has "historically supported the [court's] inherent supervisory power over the practice of law." (The lackeyed nature of the Bar was illustrated when the chief justice prepared to swear in the new Bar president, at which time she pointed out the one portion of the oath where the president swears to aid the court and noted that all the people she has sworn in have upheld that promise.) There is, therefore, no legislative or political agenda by the Bar to address not only the assessment, but the abusive power of the court. Never mind that the majority of members who contacted the Bar regarding the assessment were opposed to it.

    The inability of the Bar to effectively advocate for its members is ensured by the requirement that the Bar be mandatory. By its nature a mandatory bar has the effect of diluting dissent and rendering the bar impotent. Some of our justices must be laughing, well, all the way to the courthouse. Of course the Bar - with its dozens of full-time employees and fine building - has no impetus to rock the boat and thus actually come out swinging for those bankrolling it.

    WisTAF, despite its noble sentiments, is unworkable and should be terminated. The assessment itself is an illustration of an undemocratic structure and the inherent uselessness of a mandatory bar. The entire structure needs to be challenged and reformed.

    Mark Schlei,

    Response: I would like to offer clarification of several points that Mr. Schlei makes.

    Over the course of the past 17 years, the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation granted the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation (ACLU/WIF) a little less than $450,000, in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $55,000. These funds supported the ACLU/WIF's Poverty, Race and Civil Liberties program, which provides statewide legal services to indigent Wisconsin residents when their civil liberties or civil rights are in jeopardy. As with all of our grantees, WisTAF monitored the success of the ACLU/WIF's program through written reporting and on-site visits. During our granting relationship with the agency, WisTAF found the ACLU/WIF used its grants appropriately and provided significant specialized services to low-income Wisconsin residents whose civil liberties or civil rights were violated and who otherwise would have had no recourse available to them.

    WisTAF has, until recently, operated with three staff people, and it was housed at the State Bar of Wisconsin until it moved into the new Bar Center in 1999. We moved into our own office at that time, saving more than 20 percent in overhead costs. In June 2005, we reorganized and reduced our staff to two people, further reducing our administrative costs. The WisTAF Board is committed to ensuring that at least 90 cents of every dollar contributed to the agency goes to those who need it most - the people of Wisconsin who share our common right to justice, but who do not have the economic resources to obtain it.

    De Ette Tomlinson, Executive Director
    Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation Inc.