CAPITOL 1

Police arrest Irving Smith of Madison Thursday during the Solidarity Sing Along at the State Capitol.

The latest crackdown at the Wisconsin Capitol is starting to put a strain on the stable of lawyers representing protesters.

“I’m appalled by what’s taking place, but I’m not taking any new cases,” says Bob Jambois, who represented a load of cases last year when Capitol Police Chief David Erwin began his campaign to clear the building of remaining protesters and to force the anti-Scott Walker Solidarity Singers to get a permit for their daily noon-time singalong.

Jambois says he and his wife, Beverly, also a lawyer, have been working until the wee hours preparing court briefs for his clients.

“I think I’ve got something in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 cases involving eight or nine or 10 people,” he says. “It’s just been so overwhelming I haven’t even kept track of how many I’ve got.”

Jambois’ case load used to be larger, but some of his clients were let off the hook when cases were dismissed. But a federal judge earlier this month ruled that a Department of Administration policy that requires a permit for groups of four or more was constitutional as long as the bar was raised to 20 or more. And since the police crackdown, the numbers of singers have risen to as many as 200.

The singers have staunchly refused to get a permit, citing requirements that they provide a head count of participants ahead of time, which they say is impossible because no one knows who will show up on any given day. They contend the group is not led by anyone, and the singalong is a spontaneous event driven only by a shared and abiding hatred of the policies of Gov. Scott Walker.

Erwin appears to have taken the judge's ruling as a license to launch an offensive against the singers. In the four days of indoor protests since last Wednesday (the singers took their act outside on Monday), news reports indicate Capitol police have issued over 100 citations.

Patricia Hammel, a lawyer who is organizing legal help for the defendants, says the 15 or so attorneys she’s farming cases out to can probably handle the load. But she adds, “There’s a limit.”

Some of those attorneys are working for free, while others are working for reduced rates. And because of a technicality involving the way cases are captioned, lawyers are not getting fees awarded to them when they win.

Jambois has taken on the largest number of clients.

“At one point Bob said he’ll take all the cases to a jury trial and he wouldn’t charge a fee,” says Hammel. “And he’s got such an overwhelming personality that he’d come and talk to people at the Capitol and they all said, ‘Oh, I want him.’”

Jambois, who typically charges $275 per hour, currently has a case pending in the state Appeals Court that would put the Department of Administration, rather than the state, on the title of the case, which would allow defendants who win to collect attorney’s fees. Jambois lost the case in Dane County Circuit Court, but he thinks he’ll win on appeal. And that would generate more interest for lawyers to take cases.

“If I win that case, I don’t think these people will have much trouble finding lawyers,” he says.

He also says putting the state on the hook for attorneys' fees would prevent police from writing bogus citations.

So far, the scorecard is on the side of the protesters. Before the last round of citations began last week, police issued 160 citations since Erwin began his crackdown last August, Hammel says. Of those, 70 have been dismissed, most by prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office. There has been one conviction at a jury trial — for chalking on a sidewalk. One protester was convicted by default when they failed to show up for a hearing. But one defendant was cleared of five disorderly conduct charges when prosecutors failed to appear in court.

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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.