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As circuit court election nears, Townsend campaign addresses legitimacy of early legal background

Shorewood Hills Municipal Judge Marilyn Townsend has had to respond to questions regarding her early legal career as the election for Dane County Circuit Court approaches.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger and Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Hours before the election for Branch 1 of the Dane County Circuit Court, the campaign for Shorewood Hills Municipal Judge Marilyn Townsend addressed questions regarding the legitimacy of her legal background and her admittance to the state Bar of Wisconsin.

According to documents mailed to The Daily Cardinal by an anonymous source who referred to themself as a “government attorney who practices criminal law in Dane County Circuit Court each week,” Townsend was originally ruled ineligible for admission to the Wisconsin bar by the Board of Attorneys Professional Competence on May 17, 1985.

Townsend brought her case to the state Supreme Court, who in November of that year ruled the board should reconsider her case. After receiving an affidavit from one of Townsend’s former supervisors at the United Mine Workers of America, she was approved and sworn into the bar in March 1986.

She has maintained her bar license ever since and is currently in good standing.

“This desperate attack on Marilyn is as pathetic as it is despicable,” Townsend’s campaign manager Melissa Mulliken said in a response.

The anonymous source also sent the information to Townsend’s opponent, Susan Crawford, whose campaign decided not to release the information.

“We declined to act on it as Susan is committed to running a positive campaign based on her strong record in court and criminal law experience,” wrote Eric LaGesse, campaign manager for Crawford.

The state’s 1985 Supreme Court ruling referring Townsend’s application back to the board appeared to circulate on Facebook among members of Madison’s legal community. The decision was posted on Facebook by area attorney Mark Hazelbaker, and was shared by another lawyer, Lester Pines, a senior partner at the firm Pines Bach, where Crawford is currently an attorney.

Townsend was ruled ineligible based off of a technicality in the state’s Supreme Court rules that found the work she did in Washington D.C. for UMWA did not constitute “the active practice of law” and was instead “legal service as corporate counsel.”

This would not have satisfied Wisconsin’s legal competence requirement known as “proof of practice,” a process by which applicants prove that they have been “substantially engaged” in the practice of law for three out of the five years prior to their application.

In order for her work in Washington D.C. to count as proof of practice to make her eligible for the Wisconsin Bar, she had to have her bar license in the District of Columbia during that period of time, which Townsend did not.

Proof of practice is one of three ways applicants to the Wisconsin Bar can gain eligibility. The other two are through diploma privilege and the passing the state Bar examination.

Townsend graduated from Potomac School of Law in August 1979, an unaccredited program. The law school shut down due to financial and organizational mishaps two years later.

Steven Barkan, chair of the state’s Board of Bar Examiners, explicitly stated that he could not express any opinion to Townsend’s case specifically, but noted that while most of the lawyers in Wisconsin gain admittance through the other two processes, “there are a substantial number of lawyers that come in through proof of practice.”

But Barkin added that due to the simple lack of unaccredited schools, it’s not commonplace for applicants to have graduated from them.

After graduating, Townsend passed the bar exam in Georgia, the only state which allowed graduates of Potomac to take the test, and soon after began work for the UMWA’s Office of General Counsel.

In his affidavit to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, made in January 1986, former General Counsel of UMWA Harrison Combs said he considered Townsend’s work in court litigations the most consequential work she did.

“Under these circumstances I considered her to be primarily engaged in the practice of law in the courts,” he wrote.

One month later, the state board overruled their first decision, granting Townsend eligibility.

Barkin confirmed that “if she came in through proof of practice, she qualified.”

In the more than thirty years since gaining her license in Wisconsin, Townsend has argued and won a case before the state Supreme Court and has also decided more than 3,000 cases as a municipal court judge.

“People who don’t support Marilyn can peddle all the falsehoods they want; it doesn't change the fact that Marilyn Townsend is publicly endorsed by Russ Feingold, 61 Judges, and more than 850 attorneys, elected officials and community leaders as the most qualified and most experienced candidate in this race,” Mulliken said.

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