George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Jacob Blake. These are just a few of the names that drew national attention in 2020 and sparked a summer of national, state, and local protests. From La Crosse to Appleton, from Superior to Kenosha, people throughout Wisconsin were calling for justice. Rather than merely echo this call, State Bar of Wisconsin leadership decided that this was the time to act.
As her first official act after being sworn into office, State Bar President Kathy Brost formed the Racial Justice Task Force (RJTF). The RJTF was charged with ensuring “that the State Bar, including its sections, divisions and committees … work[ed] toward the goal of racial justice and/or increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in Wisconsin’s legal profession.”
State Bar leaders did not want some pro forma group. Instead, they wanted attorney leaders who are dedicated to making positive change toward racial justice and have the power and commitment to make that change happen. President Brost appointed all of the State Bar’s elected officers to the RJTF, including the three presidents, the treasurer, and both the incoming and the outgoing secretaries. The RJTF also included the outgoing chair of the Board of Governors, the Section Leaders Council chair, the Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee (DIOC) chair, and the Building Bridges liaison from the Wisconsin Association of African Americans Lawyers (WAAL). Jill Kastner, who was then SBW immediate past president, chaired the RJTF and devoted much of her final year as a State Bar officer to its work.
The RJTF began its work in June 2020 with a sense of urgency. Rather than relying on others to implement its recommendations, the RJTF quickly developed a list of short-term initiatives and goals and immediately began implementation.
The RJTF also had deep conversations about racial inequality in the justice system and how inequality directly conflicts with the State Bar’s mission, vision, and purposes. Racial disparities in the justice system are real, documented, and irreconcilable with the State Bar’s commitment to equal justice under the law. The RJTF also addressed issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in Wisconsin’s legal profession.
Words not followed up by deeds would never achieve the desired goals, and anything less would ultimately be viewed as performative. Deliberate and intentional actions are necessary to eliminate barriers, disparity, and injustice. That is why the RJTF focused on developing actionable recommendations to advance racial justice and DEIA.
The Work is Important
The Racial Justice Task Force Report is important because it is part of a continuum of efforts by the State Bar to address diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice. Past work includes the 2009 Diversity Task Force Recommendations and the 2012 Diversity Task Force Report and Recommendations. In the wake of events in 2020, the RJTF was faced with many questions. In a world swirling with images of division and discord, peaceful protests, riots, fires, torches, and a COVID-19 pandemic, what, if anything, should the State Bar Board of Governors be doing or saying?
Was the State Bar of Wisconsin doing enough on diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice?
Did we need to do more?
If we needed to do more, what did that mean?
We are living in a time of lightning-speed communications – the pressure to react is constant. The pressures in 2020 were real. But the
Racial Justice Task Force Report did not happen only because of the events of 2020. Instead, the State Bar was doing this work on a constant continuum. At times, progress seemed slow. But the work of developing State Bar policy is by necessity a deliberative process – if done correctly, the result is thoughtful consensus and better reflection of our collective constituents and community.
Highlights of Racial Justice Task Force Work
In summer 2020, the State Bar’s Policy Committee was given the task of evaluating State Bar systems using a lens of racial justice and specifically considering law enforcement reform issues. The goal was to identify any policies that needed to be amended or adopted. The ensuing discussions were long, intense, heated, and cooled. The breadth of issues was difficult to broach with such a varied group of individuals. The Policy Committee included public defenders, district attorneys, corporate attorneys, tribal government attorneys, education law attorneys, and nonprofit attorneys. The legal experience represented was expansive.
Jill M. Kastner, UCLA 2000, is a former president of the State Bar of Wisconsin (2019-20) and chair of the Racial Justice Task Force. She is the supervising attorney for
Legal Action of Wisconsin’s EvictionFreeMKE project in Milwaukee.
Starlyn Tourtillott Miller, U.W. 2008, is a former secretary of the State Bar of Wisconsin (2018-20), member of the Racial Justice Task Force, and chair (2021) of the Board of Governors Policy Committee. She is the Native Lands Partnership Director for
The Wilderness Society. She previously practiced with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin – Legal Services Department in Keshena.
Alexander M. (Alex) Lodge, Iowa 2016, served as a Building Bridges Liaison to the State Bar of Wisconsin Board of Governors, serves on the Racial Justice Task Force, and is an advisor to the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers. He practices law in Minneapolis.
Get to know the authors: Check out Q&A below.
The first question the committee asked was whether the State Bar had any written policies on racial justice and the legal system and whether any such policies needed to be updated. There was one on racial profiling, which the Policy Committee quickly updated and amended without much difficulty, including by expanding the definition of discrimination in the justice system. The policy passed unanimously.
Next, the Policy Committee considered whether the State Bar should develop any policies on racial justice and the legal system. Law enforcement reform was the subject of many meetings and challenging discussions. In the end, no one walked away with everything they wanted but everyone walked away with something they could believe in. What resulted was a policy that supports community policing, law enforcement training, public transparency, and preservation-of-life and de-escalation tactics – statewide models for use of force. The policy is nimble but also provides parameters. After passing out of the Policy Committee on a 15-2 vote, the policy went to the full Board of Governors for its approval, which it gained. These policies are not in any way perfect, but law and policy often are not. These policies merely express a collective voice. These policies should not be the end; they are the beginning. They should be a medium of continuance of progress toward true equity for all participants in the legal system.
At the same time, the State Bar’s Strategic Planning Committee reviewed the State Bar’s strategic plan and proposed amendments to the language centering on “equity” and “accessibility.” The Strategic Planning Committee made recommendations related to similar amendments to the State Bar’s diversity statement and worked with the Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee. The amendments to the strategic plan and diversity statement were approved unanimously by the Board of Governors in June 2021.
The State Bar Governance Committee also looked at what was needed to ensure that all members were represented and had a voice within State Bar governance. Wisconsin’s major affinity bar associations have building bridges liaisons to the Board of Governors. These liaisons, appointed by the State Bar president, can speak on issues during meetings and in committees, though they are not voting members. To provide guidance, the Governance Committee worked to create a role description for building bridges liaisons. The Governance Committee better defined the liaisons’ role and created a building bridges self-assessment tool to help the State Bar and the liaisons to reflect on their experiences and insights. The committee also examined infrastructure, such as the bylaws, for areas in need of amendments or updates related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.
The State Bar has created other opportunities to address diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice by developing partnerships with the law schools and strengthening conversations and work with affinity groups, recognizing that the profession is strongest when we set a table for all who want to volunteer and bring their life experiences to the conversation.
Kenosha Expungement Clinic
In 2019, the State Bar began planning to hold an in-person Board of Governors’ meeting in Kenosha. But after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha in August 2020, State Bar leaders wondered what message might be conveyed by having a meeting in the city. The RJTF and the Board of Governors decided this was an opportunity to put words into action. The Board would go to Kenosha – and hold an expungement clinic.
Legal Action of Wisconsin, the Urban League of Racine and Kenosha, the Kenosha Bar Association, and the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers helped plan and conduct this free expungement clinic, held in downtown Kenosha, for low-income individuals. Volunteers helped 62 people at the clinic. Dozens of dismissed cases were removed from records, five people received expungements, and half a dozen more were helped with pardon applications.
Work with Law Schools
The State Bar has historically focused on leadership development and, importantly, engaging the next generation of Wisconsin lawyers by providing meaningful training and opportunities. The RJTF did not overlook the feelings, concerns, and calls to action expressed by students at the University of Wisconsin Law School and the Marquette University Law School.
The RJTF met with students and the deans of both law schools to better assist in supporting the law schools and law students in advancing their goals with respect to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Additionally, RJTF members met with and organized substantive skills training workshops for law students participating in the State Bar’s
Diversity Clerkship Program, which matches students with diverse backgrounds with employers who provide paid summer employment. Diversity Clerkship Program participants met with affinity bar association members who highlighted the unique challenges that diverse attorneys face within the legal profession.
The State Bar CLE Committee also worked on the issue of gaining continuing legal education (CLE) credit for training programs related to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility and eliminating bias. While many attorneys are required to take this type of training as part of their work, the Board of Bar Examiners does not recognize most of the programs for CLE credit. The Board of Governors adopted the CLE Committee’s proposal to petition the Wisconsin Supreme Court to approve CLE credit for this type of training. State Bar President Cheryl Daniels also created a new task force to examine whether such training should be required for all Wisconsin attorneys.
The Path Forward
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s final book,
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote, “the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice.” Few people emerged from 2020 without change. Billions of people faced anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and countless numbers saw video of the 9 minutes and 29 seconds on May 25, 2020, when Minneapolis police officers took the life of George Floyd. This tragic event sparked a collective reckoning with the injustice, inequality, and inequity that Black people and members of other marginalized communities face. The work of the RJTF provided an immediate response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the shooting of Jacob Blake and to the global movement for racial justice that followed. This important work must continue.
This article has outlined the work done so far. But the RJTF’s swift work in the moment is simply not enough. So, where do we go from here?
First and foremost, lawyers must listen – particularly to residents of the communities who are greatly affected by inequities in the justice system. More often than not, this requires becoming educated on salient issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and access to justice affecting the communities we serve. The RJTF discussed and provided recommendations for implementing trainings on topics specific to DEIA for State Bar leaders and staff and throughout the Wisconsin legal community. In doing so, we fully embody our oath as Wisconsin lawyers to “never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.”
Second, it is vital to tackle areas of immediate need with respect to access to justice. The State Bar has made considerable efforts to provide access to expungement relief for the roughly 1.4 million individuals in Wisconsin who have criminal records. (Wisconsin Policy Forum, “A Fresh Start: Wisconsin’s Atypical Expungement Law and Options for Reform,” June 2018.) Because criminal records can pose a significant barrier to obtaining adequate employment and housing, the RJTF highlighted the need to direct relevant State Bar committees to conduct a review of Wisconsin’s limited expungement law and its efficacy in eliminating collateral consequences of conviction and to develop means to promote broader expungement reform. While expungement is only one measure, eliminating barriers to adequate employment and housing advances efforts to dismantle root causes of inequity in the justice system. In addition to addressing expungement reform, the State Bar must continue to seek support for policies to reform juvenile shackling, juvenile jurisdiction, cash bail, and adequate compensation of stakeholders.
Third, the RJTF’s work highlighted the continuous need to strengthen our collaborations with Wisconsin’s law schools and other initiatives that support the pipeline to legal careers for diverse students. This means helping to ensure diverse law students not only gain meaningful education at our institutions but also have confidence that Wisconsin can be a great place for diverse young lawyers to begin and continue their careers. In doing so, the State Bar must increase the number of diverse law students and new attorneys, strengthen investment in mentoring programs serving diverse law students and new attorneys, and continue to educate the state’s law schools and broader legal communities on DEIA issues.
While we still have hard work to do and heavy loads to lift to truly achieve equity and equality in Wisconsin’s justice system, we can remain hopeful in creating a better future for the next generation of Wisconsin lawyers.
Meet Our Contributors
How do you recharge your batteries?
After sitting behind a desk all week, nothing recharges my batteries more than a good hike on one of Wisconsin’s beautiful hiking trails. I’ve hiked more than 500 miles of the Ice Age Trail – from Door County through Baraboo and Waupaca. My favorite part is an eight-mile stretch in Monches. It has everything I could ask for: breath-taking views, a picturesque walking bridge over flowing water, interesting geographic features, including big, ice-age boulders, and a great café to eat lunch afterward. Taking the time to unplug and enjoy these simple pleasures always refreshes me.
Jill M. Kastner,
Legal Action of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
What was your funniest or oddest experience in a legal context?
During my judicial externship with my mentor and friend, Menominee Tribal Judge Wendell Askenette, I asked Judge Askenette this exact question. He thought for a moment, then told me about watching his predecessor Judge Sarah Skubitz. He recalled watching her in the courtroom in awe of her natural command of it.
One day, an elderly gentleman was a defendant before her and he seemed somewhat aloof. When Judge Skubitz asked him a question, the defendant replied, “Yes, ma’am.” Swiftly, Judge Skubitz reminded him that she was “Judge Skubitz.” It must have made the man nervous. The next time Judge Skubitz asked him a question, the defendant quickly replied, “Yes, your highness!” The whole courtroom, including Judge Skubitz, busted out laughing.
I love that story and when I tell it, I am once again with my friend who has passed on.
Starlyn Tourtillott Miller,
The Wilderness Society, Washington, D.C.
How has your career surprised you?
The fact that I’m practicing law at all still surprises me. Before entering law school, I had envisioned a career in research and development or in academia. Later, I expected to grow and develop as an IP attorney. I did not expect a legal career that would include a deep commitment to pro bono service and legal education. This was a big surprise for me.
A significant part of my career today includes advocating for underserved clients through pro bono clinics, such as WAAL’s expungement and arrest-record-correction clinics, or providing educational workshops about Fourth Amendment rights to high school and law students through the Justice101 nonprofit that I cofounded with a law school classmate. As I continue to mature in my legal career, I look forward to the surprising and new directions it will take me.
Alexander M. (Alex) Lodge, Minneapolis
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» Cite this article:
95 Wis. Law. 34-38 (June 2022).