Systems Change Mentoring

One of the most enjoyable parts of my legal practice has been the opportunity to mentor dozens of law students who have clerked for me over the past 30+ years. Many of these students have gone on to become successful public interest attorneys and I believe that their experience working for me helped guide them along their path towards obtaining justice for those who need it most.

Earlier this week, one of my former law clerks filled me with pride as she took an important disability issue to the national stage when she asked Hillary Clinton a great question during a campaign speech she gave at the University of Wisconsin.

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I first encountered Nicki Vander Meulen when she was a public school student in Walworth County, Wisconsin. Her parents sought my assistance because her school district wanted to place her in the county’s segregated school (Lakeland) which educated only children with disabilities in a program that was not designed for students to prepare them for college, but instead for a life of continued institutionalization and segregation. Nicki’s parents knew that she was capable of much more than Lakeland had to offer, and I was able to help them keep Nicki in regular public school in an inclusive setting, and she successfully graduated high school.

Years later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Nicki was attending the University of Wisconsin Law School (something I am quite sure no Lakeland attendee has ever done). She applied to be my intern and I gladly accepted her application.

During Nicki’s tenure as my law clerk, she conducted the research and with my assistance, wrote the first version of the bill that ultimately became Act 125, which forbids the inappropriate use of seclusion & restraint on Wisconsin’s school children. Nicki drafted a bill that was better than the bill that ultimately passed, and set the standard for 12 years of negotiations that led to Act 125’s ultimate passage. The bill she drafted was only sponsored by then Assemblyman (now Congressman) Mark Pocan, and did not even get a hearing. But, we had to start somewhere, and Nicki set the bar high. Systems change always starts with high aspirations and setting the bar high helps to assure a reasonable outcome in the end, which is exactly what happened.

Nicki graduated from law school in 2004 and has maintained a successful private practice as a public defender and advocating for children with disabilities and many others. She periodically calls me for advice and I gladly continue to mentor her and occasionally refer cases to her.

But Nicki takes her work as a systems change agent seriously and knows that systems change goes beyond her paid work as an attorney. So, when she had the opportunity to ask Hillary Clinton an important question at a campaign event, she broke important ground.

As you can see in this video (starting at the 47 minute mark), Nicki openly declares her disability pride  when introduces herself as a lawyer who is on the autism spectrum. She then asks Sec. Clinton what she would do about the sub-minimum wage which is paid to people with disabilities who work at sheltered workshops such as Goodwill, and further, what Sec. Clinton would do to create better employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Clinton answered by acknowledging that it was time to get rid of the subminimum wage in its entirety both for people with disabilities, and other low wage workers, such as restaurant employees who receive tips.

Nicki’s question and Secretary Clinton’s answer quickly received national attention, as The Atlantic published Clinton’s Case Against the Subminimum Wage crediting a “young lawyer with autism” for asking for Clinton’s opinion about this antiquated Depression era exemption to the minimum wage. The article goes on to credit Clinton with being the only Presidential candidate to speak out on this issue, which may not have happened if Nicki had not asked this important question.

Of course, the Presidential campaign is far from over, and even if Sec. Clinton does become President Clinton, much work will need to be done to end the antiquated and discriminatory subminimum wage. However, Nicki started the national conversation in a way that has never been done before, and she will deserve credit for her role in ending the subminimum wage whenever that happens, just as she deserves credit for crafting the first version of the Wisconsin seclusion and restraint law.

I am confident that Nicki will continue to be a successful systems change agent and I am glad that I have played a role mentoring her.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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Disrespectful Justice

This afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend the Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates’ debate sponsored by the Dane County Bar Association between incumbent Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was recently appointed to an open seat by Gov. Scott Walker, and Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg. As both candidates covered familiar ground, I did not expect to learn anything new that would result in my writing a blog post. After all, I have recently written another post about this campaign, and I have publicly endorsed Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, whom I have known for her entire legal career.

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Justice Rebecca Bradley

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Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg

However, towards the end of the debate, Justice Bradley was asked about the well publicized time when she walked out of oral argument before it was finished in order to give a campaign speech to a conservative business group. While I certainly did not expect her to apologize or admit that she had done anything wrong, since she has defended her decision to depart from oral argument early, her response made me realize that Justice Rebecca Bradley truly does not understand how her actions impact upon attorneys and litigants.

She told a large group of attorneys that she, “could not have learned anything else,” if she had stayed for the final 15 minutes of oral argument because she had already asked all the questions she had, and that she watched the video recording of the argument she missed afterwards.

I was stunned. Justice Rebecca Bradley admitted to a large group of attorneys that it was unfathomable for any further questioning from the other 6 Supreme Court Justices, or any of the answers from either attorney for the party to educate her in any way. This is simply the height of pomposity and egotism. As someone who has practiced law for over 30 years and has presented appellate oral argument many times, it is abundantly clear to me that many appellate judges think of new or follow up questions based on a colleague’s question, or an attorney’s answer. Apparently, Justice Rebecca Bradley cannot conceive of that possibility and felt that it was more important to give a campaign speech.

As if that was not audacious enough, Justice Rebecca Bradley went one step further to reveal that she has very little respect for the parties in legal proceedings. When pressed about the possibility that she might have learned something new during the portion of the argument she missed, she said that if she felt that was the case after watching the video, she would have required the parties to return to the Supreme Court for additional oral argument.

Once again, I was stunned. Is she completely unaware of the cost to the parties to require attorneys to prepare for and present oral argument a second time, just because she had to make a campaign speech instead of doing what she was appointed to do? As a practicing attorney, I know that the additional cost would have been in the thousands of dollars. Of course, her request would have also delayed the proceedings and final decision, raising anxiety for both parties in the process and delaying the ultimate outcome.

After you strip away all the campaign rhetoric, Judge Rebecca Bradley‘s answers defending her inexcusable departure from oral argument to give a campaign speech makes one thing perfectly clear: she does not respect the people who come before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and on that basis alone, she does not deserve to win the upcoming election to a 10 year term on that court.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Measuring Progress

Recently, a Madison school board member asked me and a number of other special education advocates how to best measure educational progress for children with disabilities. I responded that ultimately, it had to be measured individually, but when examining specific schools or an entire school district, key data points are useful including: suspension rates, graduation rates and reading and math test scores.

As we live in a data driven society, measuring progress is often reduced to examining numbers. While those numbers are often helpful, sometimes it is important to step back from the numbers to examine cultural progress in the way we talk about issues. Right now, the current campaign for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court provides some important lessons.

When Justice Patrick Crooks passed away last year, Gov. Scott Walker appointed Rebecca Bradley to replace him even though she was an announced candidate for that seat (Crooks had previously announced his intention to retire). This was Governor Walker’s 3rd judicial appointment of Bradley since he appointed her to her first judgeship in Milwaukee County in 2012, having then appointed her to the Court of Appeals in May, 2015, just months before he appointed her to the Supreme Court.

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In her application for the Wisconsin Supreme Court position, she was asked to, “List any published books or articles.” She lists 16 publications dating back to 2001. Over the past week, controversial articles she wrote as a columnist for the Marquette University newspaper in the early 1990s have come to light, which she did not list in her application. In these articles she disparages gays and people with AIDS, questions the American electorate’s intelligence for electing Bill Clinton, defends the Marquette University’s Native American mascot (which has since been changed), and asserted that women play a role in date rape.

She initially claimed that she was horribly embarrassed by her college columns, and later offered an apologyoffering assurances that her views on gays have changed since that time.

Of course, ultimately, the voters will decide on April 5th whether Justice Bradley’s college columns should matter 24 years later when they decide whether to vote for her or her opponent Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg. But, watching this controversy unfold helps me realize how much progress our society has made when it comes to gay rights issues. The sad fact is that in 1992, it was acceptable for Rebecca Bradley to write hateful columns about people who are gay and those who suffer from AIDS in her college newspaper. In 2016, nobody, including her, is defending those hateful writings. They are now considered so universally offensive, that a sitting state Supreme Court judge has publicly declared that she is “horribly embarrassed” and must apologize for those hateful writings. In this particular matter, society has evolved in a positive way.

Of course, Rebecca Bradley wrote other and more recent publications for which she has not apologized and cannot excuse herself as the writings of an immature college student. In 2006, she wrote an opinion piece for MKE Magazine, entitled, Pharmacists are guaranteed the right to exercise their religious beliefsIn that column, she supports a bill that the Wisconsin legislature did not pass, which would have allowed pharmacists to refuse to provide the medicine known as “Plan B” to customers if it did not conform to their religious beliefs and furthermore, did not require objecting pharmacists to refer the customer elsewhere to fill their prescriptions. At the end of her column, she writes:

Rebecca recommends visiting http://www.prolifewisconsin.org and Pharmacists For Life International, http://www.pfli.org, for more info about getting involved.

When this issue was brought to light, Rebecca Bradley declined to weigh in, due to the potential for the issue to come before the high court.

“Justice Bradley believes it is the role of the Legislature to make the law and the role of a justice to apply it,” said spokeswoman Madison Wiberg. “Due to the potential for this issue to come in front of the state Supreme Court, it would be improper for Justice Bradley to give an opinion at this time.”

As an attorney who has been practicing for over 30 years, I am often bemused by judicial candidates when they decide which issues they can comment on, and which they cannot.I do not consider it progress when Rebecca Bradley apologizes for clearly embarrassing writings that she did not reveal in her application for our state’s highest court, but then refuses to comment on much more current writing claiming that it could come before the Supreme Court. All issues, including the issues of gay rights, can come to the Supreme Court. Justice Bradley should not be given the luxury of choosing which of her own writings, especially more recent writing written as a practicing attorney, she can comment on.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting. In the interest of full disclosure, he has publicly endorsed Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg in the upcoming race for Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Birthday Orchids

One of my hobbies is growing houseplants. In addition to their beauty, they help keep our indoor air clean and fresh all year long, even through a long winter of closed windows. Over 20 years ago, I started raising orchids. Orchids are not only extraordinarily beautiful, but they pose significant challenges in getting them to rebloom. They need special fertilizer since they are epiphytes with aerial roots that do not obtain nutrition from the soil, so they are planted in bark to imitate their natural habitat of growing on the bark of trees in the jungle. Of course, as with all plants, finding the right location for the proper amount of sunshine is also very important.

When our son was born 19 years ago, we bought an orchid to celebrate and put it in his bedroom. The next year, that orchid rebloomed, and I realized that Josh’s bedroom was an ideal location to grow orchids. Sure enough, at least one orchid has rebloomed during Josh’s birthday for all 19 of his birthdays.

Here are the orchids blooming in his room on his 19th birthday.

My wife, Sheryl, does not believe in coincidences, and in this case, I agree that it is no coincidence that orchids have bloomed in his bedroom every year on Josh’s birthday. Sure, I take good care of my orchids. But, Josh has also bloomed every year as he has grown and matured into a young adult studying abroad at the Technion in Haifa, whom we and many others admire, not only for his many talents and accomplishments, but for the caring attitude and empathy which pervades the way he sees the world and interacts in it. So, even though he is far away this year on his birthday, his spirit remains a part of his bedroom, and I believe that contributes to the continued annual reblooming of his bedroom’s orchids.

When parents raise their children, they always hope for the best, but ultimately, as their children become adults, they must acknowledge that their now adult children must make their own choices about how to live their lives. We raised Josh as a critical thinker in the hope  that he would make good choices. Now, on his 19th birthday, we receive much joy from thousands of miles away as we watch him make good choices living and learning in a foreign land. We wish him many more years of successfully navigating life through making good choices as an independent adult while I continue to care for the orchids in his bedroom so that they rebloom every year on his birthday, as a beautiful reminder of our beautiful son.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.