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Court overhauls lawyer disciplinary system

The state Supreme Court’s decision last week to jettison the Board of Attorneys Professional Responsibility in favor of an entirely new lawyer disciplinary system garnered positive, yet cautionary, reviews from the field.“The objective of the court was to increase public accountability of the system while still being fair to the lawyers, and I think this will work fine,” Gary L. Bakke, president-elect of the State Bar of Wisconsin and chairman of the BAPR Structural Committee, said. “But it’s inevitable a new system will have unintentional consequences, and it will mandate tweaking.”The court on May 22 voted 6-1, with Justice Bill Bablitch dissenting, to replace BAPR with the Office of Lawyer Regulation. William Mann, Supreme Court commissioner, said the new system goes into effect Sept. 1, to be followed by a six-month open comment period and a public hearing in April.“Is anything ever final? No,” he said. “But it’s as good as done.”Mann said the court culled aspects of BAPR and combined them with new steps to streamline the system and deal with complaints of cronyism. An intake system will initiate the new lawyer disciplinary process by handling all lawyer misconduct grievances.“The intake weeds out or sends grievances elsewhere, such as arbitration committees or the Office of Consumer Protection,” Mann said. “If intake sees allegations that are worthy of investigation, it sends them to the director who has the staff or one of 16 district committees investigate.”Bakke said the state bar listed intake as a top priority of any new system.“We think a client-assistance program was a very good idea,” he said. “We’re also happy with the preservation of the district committees because we feel they are important in lots of ways.”The district committees, as well as every system panel or committee, will have a two-thirds lawyer to one-third nonlawyer makeup. If the director determines the investigation revealed cause to proceed, the matter is turned over to a neutral Preliminary Review Committee.Mann said the Review Committee will sit in two six-member panels. The court created the panels to divide the workload, but Mann said he will constantly rotate the membership between the two groups.“Cause to proceed in the matter will be a reasonable belief based on review of the investigative report that an attorney engaged in misconduct or has a medical incapacity that may be proved by clear and satisfactory evidence,” he said.James L. Martin, BAPR interim administrator, said the switch from a 12-member cause to proceed panel to two six-member panels could hamstring the process. He said four of six votes will now be needed to proceed as opposed to seven of 12 in the BAPR system.“Whether it proves to be significant, I don’t know, but it is certainly of concern to us,” Martin said. “It might move faster, but one could argue it’s tougher for us to prove our case. They’ve upped the ante. But the fact of splitting the responsibilities of the

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