Lawsuit alleges State Bar of Wisconsin minority program is unconstitutional

Dec 20, 2023, 7:46 AM | Updated: 9:16 am

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A conservative law firm filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the State Bar of Wisconsin’s “diversity clerkship program” unconstitutionally discriminates based on race.

The program offers summer internships for first-year law school students at top law firms, private companies and government offices. Past participants have included Alliant Energy, Froedrert Health, the Kohler Co., the city of Madison, the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the state Department of Corrections.

The lawsuit is the latest of its kind to be filed across the country targeting diversity, equity and inclusion programs in the private and public sectors after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down affirmative action in college admissions, declaring that race cannot be a factor.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the latest lawsuit targeting the bar association’s internship program. It argues that the bar is violating the equal protection rights of law students by operating the program that is not open to all law school students and classifies applicants based on race.

The lawsuit also argues that the bar, by collecting mandatory fees from members that help pay for the program, is violating the free speech and free association rights of those who object to having their dues used this way.

The State Bar of Wisconsin is a mandatory professional association, created by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, for all attorneys who hold a law license in the state. It has about 25,000 members.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of eastern Wisconsin, seeks a ruling preventing the bar association from unconstitutionally administering or promoting the internship program.

Mike Wiltse, a spokesperson for the bar association, said they had just received a copy of the complaint Wednesday and were reviewing it.

On its website, the bar association says the program is for University of Wisconsin and Marquette University law school students “with backgrounds that have been historically excluded from the legal field.” But the lawsuit alleges that is a new focus and that the program has historically been touted as a way to increase racial diversity among attorneys at law firms, private companies and in government.

About 600 internships have been created under the program since it began 30 years ago, according to the bar association.

“Internships are competitive — as they should be,” Daniel Suhr, an attorney and bar association member represented by WILL in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “But when one group is given preferential treatment over the other to apply for these programs, the programs lose competitiveness and hurt all Americans.”

Suhr said he objects to his annual dues being used to fund the program.

Opposition has been growing among Republican legislative leaders to diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

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Lawsuit alleges State Bar of Wisconsin minority program is unconstitutional