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    President's Message: Speaking for the Justice System 

    As a lawyer, President-elect Barack Obama may be receptive to the issues of the law and the legal profession, and a fair and impartial justice system for all.

    Diane S. Diel

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 12, December 2008

    President's Message

    Speaking for the Justice System 

    As a lawyer, President-elect Barack Obama may be receptive to the issues of the law and the legal profession, and a fair and impartial justice system for all. 

Dielby Diane S. Diel

    This year a major topic is elections. Wisconsin’s supreme court elections have concerned many of us, and the ABA is now studying judicial election reform. We are dealing with a challenge to Wisconsin’s Judicial Conduct Code on the ground that the code violates the First Amendment because judicial candidates cannot identify themselves as a member of a political party. We also are dealing with State Bar elections for president-elect, which can be won without a majority vote. Until now, the election we haven’t talked about is the election for U.S. president.

    Perhaps you didn’t support the candidacy of the president-elect. Even if you didn’t support Barack Obama, there is good news about his election we can all share: Once again, a lawyer will be president of the United States.

    Our lawyer president-elect has a full plate of problems to address. The economy, the war, climate change, energy independence, and enormous budget deficits are obviously pressing and require immediate attention and swift action. Even with such devastating problems to address, this newly elected president may be receptive to the issues of the law and the legal profession. It is even possible that, like John F. Kennedy in 1960, he will agree to meet with the presidents of the state bar associations to address those issues.

    In August 2008, I was invited to a meeting of bar presidents from across the country to discuss whether we could set an agenda with the presidential candidates. The meeting was convened in the office of New York State Bar President Bernice Leber during the National Conference of Bar Presidents meeting. There, we discussed a strategy to bring the issues facing the administration of the justice system to the candidates.

    Ultimately, a letter addressing those issues was sent to each candidate requesting meetings – both before the election and after the inauguration – between the bar presidents and the candidate to address the issues. Although no meeting materialized during the campaign, there is hope for a post-inaugural meeting.

    The first issue the bar presidents raised to the candidates was the right to counsel for civil legal services including, specifically, the candidates’ support for funding of civil legal services programs that provide counsel for child custody litigation and housing programs. The ultimate question asked was whether the candidate would support a federal civil-Gideon right to representation in civil legal disputes.

    The second set of questions was designed to measure the candidates’ willingness to support programs ensuring an impartial, independent, and adequately compensated judiciary. The bar presidents also asked about the candidates’ support for mandatory recusal in any case in which a lawyer representing a client before the court made a contribution to the judge.

    Finally, the presidents asked how the candidate would support the need for civics education, relying on retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s remark, “Knowledge of our Constitution and the role of the courts is not handed down in the gene pool. Each generation must learn about our system of government and the citizen’s role.” The bar presidents asked whether the candidates view the lack of civics education to be a national problem and, if so, how that problem might be solved.

    All three of these topics address issues that lie at the heart of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s strategic plan. The enormous need of low-income individuals for lawyers in civil legal matters is well known in this state. Concern, if not disgust, over our judicial election process is everywhere. The Bar is working to expand programming to increase the public’s understanding of the law and the legal system.

    President-elect Obama has not yet replied to the bar presidents’ request for a meeting. There are so many pressing issues on his plate that it would be understandable if he deferred or demurred. However, there is still a chance of a meeting and more importantly, there is a chance the president-elect would be favorable to the positions of the organized bar associations.

    I can’t wait to meet the new president. We have so much to discuss.