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Attorney Lester Pines racks up impressive wins against GOP agenda

Attorney Lester Pines racks up impressive wins against GOP agenda

When 14 Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin last year in an effort to torpedo a Republican law to curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees, a prominent GOP attorney advised the Senate majority leader to bring them back, by force if need be.

The Democrats turned to Madison attorney Lester Pines.

"He's one we look to as someone who will assist us on our problems," says Senate President Fred Risser, one of the lawmakers who was on the lam.

Although the runaways deprived them of a quorum, Republicans eventually managed to ram the law through without them, making the arguments for and against forcible detention of the runaways moot.

But Pines eventually got key portions of the law overturned in court. Not only that, he also took on the Republicans' voter ID law, which some said would have disenfranchised tens of thousands of Democratic voters, and got the courts to put the law's key provision — the requirement that voters present a photo ID — on hold.

To complete the hat trick, late last month Pines, representing Madison Teachers Inc. and the Wisconsin Education Association Council, stuck it to Republicans again when Dane County Judge Amy Smith struck down part of a law that consolidated rule-making authority in the governor's office. That law gave Gov. Scott Walker control over rules that govern agencies like the Attorney General's Office, the Government Accountability Board, the Employment Relations Commission, the Public Service Commission and the Department of Public Instruction, all of which were previously independent. Pines argued, and Smith agreed, that State Superintendent Tony Evers had constitutional powers beyond the governor's reach.

"They extended (the law) to the Department of Public Instruction despite the fact that they were told in the brief legislative hearings they held on that bill that it was likely unconstitutional," says Pines. "But they didn't care. They just did it."

While Pines' recent wins are likely to be appealed, one thing is clear: He's on a roll. How did he get to be such a pain in the collective GOP butt?

"Part of it is where he's at in his career," says former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who during his eight years in office frequently employed Pines to represent the state. "He's put in many years of being a very effective advocate, so he has come to a point where I think people turn to him for not only his good lawyer skills, but for his wisdom and experience."

His recent wins have been a breath of fresh air for Democrats. Relegated to minority status two years ago, they have watched helplessly as Republicans steamrolled their agenda through the Legislature. And the next two years promise to be as bleak as the last; partisan redistricting in effect for the Nov. 6 elections helped the GOP strengthen its advantage.

With Democrats virtually powerless in the Legislature, the courts have proven to be a firewall against Republican excess. And Pines, more than any other lawyer, has stepped up to the plate.

"I think there are other very good lawyers," says Doyle. "But Lester has obviously been critical. He's just been a very good lawyer over a long period of time, and when his abilities and experience have been most needed he has been there."

•    •    •    •

Pines' first big win in the public policy arena came 16 years ago when, representing a number of parties, he defeated former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson's attempt to transfer the powers of the elected state school superintendent to a new education commission, whose members would be appointed. Just as he did in the recent lawsuit regarding rule-making authority, Pines argued that the state constitution clearly doesn't allow the governor to usurp the powers of the school superintendent, and in a unanimous vote, the state Supreme Court agreed. The case is widely deemed one of the most important rulings in the state's history regarding separation of powers.

After he was elected six years later, Doyle hired Pines to butt heads with Republicans in court on numerous occasions.

In 2008, Pines successfully defended the Government Accountability Board when Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen sued to force the board to order local clerks to check hundreds of thousands of voter registrations against state driver's licenses, death records and felon databases to purge ineligible voters before the Obama-McCain presidential election — a move widely regarded as a voter suppression effort.

More recently, Doyle hired Pines in 2009 to defend the state's domestic partner registry against a lawsuit filed by Julaine Appling, president of the conservative advocacy group Wisconsin Family Action, after Van Hollen refused to take the case. After his election, however, Gov. Walker, who chose not to defend the law, gave Pines the boot. Nevertheless, in June 2011 former Dane County Judge Daniel Moeser ruled the registry valid, leaving it in place during the appeals process.

Pines' legal tangles with the Walker administration are still piling up. Earlier this month he filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Walker and Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb on behalf of Spanish train maker Talgo, claiming the state stiffed the company for $4.6 million for two train sets purchased under the Doyle administration for a high-speed rail project — a project that, after winning the 2010 election, Walker killed.

With so many cases of statewide importance hanging in the balance, Pines is arguably the most influential lawyer in the state in matters of policy. But he tries to keep all that in perspective.

"I consider myself lucky to be able to have a practice where I get to do those things because they're fascinating and they're fun to do," he says.

If you ask him why clients in these matters turn to him, he'll tell you it's a combination of experience, expertise and utter immunity to intimidation.

"I have the reputation of not being afraid of anybody," he says. "If I have a client that has an issue, and I think it's an issue that should legitimately be brought to court, I'll do it. I don't care if it's the governor or anybody else."

Pines isn't spending all his time on cases of statewide interest. He has a reputation for being not only one of the state's best lawyers, but also one of the busiest, splitting his efforts between criminal defense, labor issues and other civil litigation in both federal and state court.

Two weeks ago, Pines was in Wausau litigating a case against a developer who agreed to purchase land from a farm family, then bailed out when the real estate market crashed.

"He won the case for us," says Jeff Lipp, one of the owners of the farm.

Lipp reads the papers, so he knows Pines is doing a lot of high-profile cases. He wondered: "Would he really pay as much attention to us and our case as he did for some of the more important things he's working on? I have to say, he absolutely did. He took our case to heart and was totally passionate about winning."

•    •    •    •

At 62, Pines is heading into his 39th year practicing law. He has a long-standing reputation as a consummate litigator, ambitious, unflappable, and ready for a fight. In court, his round face radiates intensity, but he's not given to the histrionics of some of his colleagues.

"His personality isn't aggressive and abrasive," says Dane County Assistant District Attorney Bob Kaiser, who's had occasion to go up against Pines in court. "Yet he's one who can forcefully advocate for what he believes in."

Kaiser and others say Pines' power of persuasion has its roots in his mastery of all things court-related.

"He's also brilliant. I don't know if anybody's mentioned that you," Kaiser says. "This is an incredibly smart guy whose grasp of the nuance is instantaneous. He just gets it."

Moeser, who retired from the judiciary last year, says Pines is well-respected among judges because when he states something in court, you can take it to the bank.

"When you do your own research, you find out he told it the way it is," he says.

He adds that Pines' formidable communications skills have helped him win over both judges and juries.

"He's an excellent lawyer, and he's able to take complex situations and explain them in very common-sense terms, which I think leads to quite a bit of success," he says.

Admiration of Pines even extends into the GOP. Remember the lawyer for the Republicans who wanted to forcibly reel in the runaway senators? That was Jim Troupis, who's often on the opposite side of Pines on the issues.

"He's just one of the finest lawyers, period," says Troupis. "There's no question about that. Lester and I have known each other a long time, and it's a real pleasure to deal with somebody that's as high-class and as good, frankly, as Lester is."

Troupis, who considers himself both friend and adversary of Pines, says that one of Pines' main assets is thinking "outside the box."

"Lester has a marvelous intellect," he says. "He tends to see things that others don't see." Troupis adds that he and Pines share views on some larger legal issues, such as the predominance of the state constitution over the federal regarding certain rights. But he says, "I happen to vehemently disagree with the conclusions he's reached."

While Pines has garnered a reputation for advocating for liberal causes, he says that characterization isn't completely accurate.

"As an attorney, I have not sought out causes," he says. "They have been brought to me by clients."

But when he sees an opportunity to take a case he can win, he's not shy about taking it.

One such opportunity came with the passing of the voter ID law, which was challenged by the Wisconsin League of Women Voters.

When the law was passed last year, the league opposed it on philosophical grounds. But after Pines approached them with the argument that the law violated suffrage provisions in the state constitution, the group saw the potential for a court challenge, says Andrea Kaminski, the league's executive director.

"We saw that the law actually went beyond being unneeded and unfair and a waste of tax dollars, and that it actually violated the state constitution," she says.

•    •    •    •

But most of Pines' cases, and those of his firm, Cullen, Weston, Pines & Bach, have nothing to do with governmental affairs, or with his own personal agenda.

"I have been willing to stand up for my clients and be their advocate," he says. "When their goals coincided with my political beliefs it has been gratifying. But most of my clients have nothing to do with politics or public policy. They just have problems that need to be solved, whether it's a contract dispute, a car accident, an employment problem or a patent lawsuit."

Nevertheless, his Democratic leanings are no secret. For instance, last year he rallied with thousands of people at the Capitol protesting Walker's attack on organized labor. He was involved with get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Barack Obama. And over the years, he's shoveled nearly $16,000 to state Democratic candidates and liberal judicial candidates.

His services might come at premium rates — $400 per hour — but he's also taken on cases he believes in at little or no charge, like the case of UW-Oshkosh lecturer William McConkey, the father of a lesbian daughter, who challenged the legality of the 2006 amendment to the state's constitution banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Or peace activist Steve Books, recipient of the first ticket issued in the recent crackdown by Capitol Police on anti-Walker protesters. On Aug. 11, about a month before officers began ticketing protesters inside the Capitol, Books was ticketed for scribbling, "This is far from over" on a Capitol sidewalk. Pines, who took Books on as a client pro bono, expects the case to go to trial soon.

"We'll have a jury trial and let the jury decide whether chalking on a sidewalk is a violation of the administrative code or if it's free speech," he says.

Doyle, who's been friends with Pines for 40 years, says Pines' penchant for standing up for the little guy has been on display his entire career.

"He's represented working people throughout his career," Doyle says, "so he's developed a strong sense of that. Lester's been somebody who's stood up for basic civil liberties and civil rights of people for a long time."

Pines' political beliefs and his sense of social justice, he says, stem from his childhood home in St. Louis, where dinner table discussions between him, his brother, his Jewish mother and his father, a native of the Dominican Republic, often concerned current events and politics.

"While my parents were not activists, they believed in equality, in social justice and, in particular, in the civil rights movement," he says. "My mother, who grew up in New York, had personally experienced job discrimination based on her religion, so she knew what discrimination was about and why equality for all people was so important."

His father was a dentist who fled his home country in 1944 after he was tipped off that he had been targeted for assassination for his outspoken opposition to dictator Rafael Trujillo.

"Despite that experience, my father repeatedly stressed to me that I needed to be willing to stand up and speak out on my beliefs or as he put it, to always have 'the courage of my convictions.'" he says. "I took his advice to heart and have always followed it."

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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