Law Forward, a nonprofit, progressive law firm, announced its launch on Thursday to “defend Wisconsin from ongoing attacks on the state’s progressive traditions.”
“Wisconsin’s ruthless legislative leadership has undertaken a systematic effort to undercut democratic norms and to disenfranchise voters,” Madison attorney Jeffrey Mandell, the group’s founder, president and lead counsel, said in a statement. “Rather than legislating to address the needs of Wisconsin families, they have repeatedly used the courts as a tool to entrench their own power. The people deserve to have an advocate in these fights.”
That advocate, say Mandell and his partner Douglas Poland, the firm’s litigation director, will be Law Forward.
The organization’s legal advisory council is co-chaired by former Sen. Russ Feingold and former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton. So far, the firm has hired one full-time attorney, Mel Barnes, former legal and policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. There is no physical office yet, and staff are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a sense, Law Forward’s legal work has already begun, Mandell tells Wisconsin Examiner. He points to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Madison voters asking a court to declare that Madison’s Democracy in the Park event was legal and that the 10,000 absentee ballots collected at city parks during the event are valid. (Republican legislative leaders sent a cease-and-desist letter to local officials warning that the ballots could be invalidated.) He also cites an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court filed by a group of organizations seeking to reinstate a district court’s ruling extending deadlines for requesting and returning absentee ballots.
Mandell and Poland are involved in both of those cases. Law Forward will continue to focus on election work in the near term, and will take up redistricting as the Legislature prepares to redraw Wisconsin’s voting maps. Poland was part of the legal team that brought the Gill v. Whitford partisan gerrymandering case to the U.S. Supreme Court. (The case died when the Court ruled in a related case that partisan gerrymandering claims present political issues that are beyond the reach of the federal courts).
The purpose of Law Forward is to create a more strategic, concerted approach to legal issues, “instead of having individual lawyers responding to individual cases in a one-off fashion,” Mandell says.
“It will allow us to create, refine and execute a strategic vision to move the law in the right direction in Wisconsin,” he adds.
Poland, who represents Madison voters in the ongoing court case over Democracy in the Park, says that lawsuit shows that “in terms of voting rights and election law, there really isn’t any precedent out there.” The lawsuit asks the court to determine if the event was a legal method of returning absentee ballots.
“Somebody needs to protect Wisconsin voters and stand up for them,” Poland adds.
A progressive version of WILL
“The conservative movement has built up a tremendous infrastructure in the state,” says Mandell, who acknowledges that it is part of Law Forward’s goal to provide a progressive counterbalance to the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which has pursued a series of original actions before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on behalf of Republicans.
Republicans and their allies, including WILL, WMC and the Tavern League, have increasingly pursued action through the courts to reverse policies they don’t like, Mandell notes. And while “it’s true our courts have been tilted to the other side,” he says, “it’s also true that too often there hasn’t been a strategic, thoughtful opposition and there’s absolutely room to make progress.”
While there is an array of advocacy groups working on environmental, reproductive rights and civil rights issues, Law Forward will be the first organization that focuses on what Mandell calls “the soft connective tissue of our democracy.” By that he means the mechanics of democracy itself, including voting and separation of powers, as opposed to particularly policy issues.
“For more than 200 years this stuff was axiomatic,” Mandell says. “We all had certain values and assumptions about how the political system works. Over the last 10-15 years, conservatives began to challenge that.”
“Having grown up in Wisconsin,” Poland says, “something has changed dramatically.” Starting with partisan gerrymandering in 2011, Republicans began sending a signal that they were intent on “entrenching their own power and ignoring the will of Wisconsinites,” he says.
Law Forward is already working with Protect Democracy and the MacArthur Justice Center on the Supreme Court case on absentee ballots.
Fair Fight, the national group founded by Stacey Abrams in Georgia, is coordinating with Law Forward to protect against voter suppression efforts that might arise in Wisconsin in connection with the November election.
And while the firm is focused on Wisconsin issues, Mandell says it could be a model for other states.
“I do believe there’s a need for progressive infrastructure,” he says, “But one of the reasons it’s so important to start here is that the conservative movement has really used Wisconsin as a testing ground for all of its ideas on destroying democracy.”
He sees Wisconsin as the laboratory of rightwing ideas about government structure, including the Republican legislative leaders seizing powers from the Democratic governor and attorney general, gerrymandering and restrictions on voting.
If other states, including Kansas, have been laboratories for fiscal conservative ideas, the retooling of democratic institutions that has been going on in Wisconsin is “more pernicious,” Mandell says, because “they can take their bad ideas to court and enshrine them in the Wisconsin Constitution.”
“The only remedy becomes an act of the Legislature. When you have the most partisan gerrymandered Legislature in the nation, that’s a problem,” he adds.
Mandell and Poland expect that the pace of litigation and the use of the courts to bolster Republican power will accelerate. They are determined to meet that challenge.
“Law Forward is essential infrastructure to protect the rule of law in Wisconsin,” Feingold, president of the American Constitution Society, said in a statement. “We need a savvy, strategic, systemic effort to rebuff the assault on Wisconsin democracy that has been underway for a decade now.”
“Now, finally, we will have a consistent, coordinated progressive voice for justice in Wisconsin court,” added Lawton.
“It’s exciting,” says Mandell. “There’s a lot to come.”