Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and two Democratic lawmakers proposed legislation Thursday that would allow the attorney general to investigate and file lawsuits over civil rights violations.
The bill would allow the attorney general to investigate and bring a civil action if a person has violated rights secured by the U.S., state constitution or state law in matters related to housing, employment, education or public accommodations.
“We must ensure that, for every Wisconsinite, our civil rights are more than simply rights on paper,” Kaul said. “This legislation would significantly enhance the protection of our rights by authorizing the Wisconsin Department of Justice to take action when significant violations occur.”
The bill could create fines of up to $50,000 for a first violation and up to $100,000 for subsequent violations within a seven-year period.
Other states, including Arizona, California and Virginia, also give their attorney generals that power. In February, the Arizona attorney general’s office settled a case involving racial discrimination by an employer.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, introduced the legislation and said it would ensure that civil rights are enforced.
“All too often people of color are denied equal opportunity and protection under the law,” Johnson said. "While some would prefer to deny this reality, it still holds true — racism and discrimination is alive and well in the United States, making it harder for underrepresented communities to secure adequate housing, employment or education."
Anderson said the legislation was “nothing short of transformative.” Anderson, who uses a wheelchair, was only granted one of the three accommodations he requested in 2019 for working in the state legislature.
Current Wisconsin law only allows private individuals to use an attorney to take legal action against civil rights violations, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Wendell J. Harris, President of the Wisconsin State Conference NAACP, said that the law “has the potential to assist in securing justice for those that cannot afford the legal cost and court fees.”
Disability Rights Wisconsin and Fair Wisconsin, which works to advance the civil rights of LGBTQ+ Wisconsinites, also supported the proposal.
“Disability Rights Wisconsin receives many more calls from individuals at risk of losing their jobs, homes or being denied access to public places based on disability discrimination than our small organization can handle,” Kit Kerschensteiner, Disability Rights Director of Legal and Advocacy Services, said. “The ability of the Attorney General to intercede and challenge systemic rights denials and blatant discriminatory practices would certainly benefit the disability community that experiences them daily.”
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