Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes commentary from readers, residents and candidates for local offices. The views of readers and columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot & Review. To submit, email editor@wausaupilotandreview.com or mail to 500 N. Third St., Suite 208-8, Wausau, Wis. 54403.

Dear editor,

More than a decade ago, in the aftermath of the scandal involving former Calumet County District Attorney Kenneth Kratz sending inappropriate text messages to a domestic violence victim—and the Wisconsin Office of Lawyer Regulation’s intial failure to “take action until a firestorm of [public] criticism erupted”—the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel conducted an explosive “investigation that disclosed that lawyer discipline in Wisconsin is largely handled behind closed doors and that the state is more lenient with lawyers who break the law than many other states.” As a result of this journalistic exposé, three Wisconsin Supreme Court justices—N. Patrick Crooks, David Prosser, Jr., and Michael Gableman—indicated their support for an objective review of the state’s lawyer disciplinary system. Shortly thereafter, then-Wisconsin State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) called for the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct an independent audit of the OLR.

These events eventually culminated in the formation of a committee tasked with reviewing the transparency, effectiveness, and fairness of the OLR’s disciplinary process. However, as of 2014, the Wisconsin Supreme Court had not implemented “any of the major recommendations made by the committee.”

Although years have passed since the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s explosive investigative report was published, the state’s lawyer disciplinary system has not significantly changed. Just several weeks ago, for instance, the OLR determined that Attorney Rick Cveykus, a candidate currently running for a seat on the Marathon County Circuit Court, should not be disciplined for his repeated violations of the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure. (Disclosure: I was one of the candidates who ran against Cveykus in the 2021 spring election for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals—District Three.)

The specter of the public voting for Cveykus to become a circuit court judge—without first being informed about his past misconduct as an appellate attorney—is a troublesome state of affairs. Unfortunately, it is yet one more example of the ongoing deterioration of Wisconsin’s court system—with no apparent end in sight.

When Rick Cveykus, managing law partner at Cveykus Law Office in Wausau, Wisconsin, ran for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in the previous spring election, his first act was to hire Nation Consulting, a political consulting firm “with ties to the Democratic National Committee and [Wisconsin] Democratic Party.” According to his campaign committee’s finance reports, Cveykus ultimately paid a total of $10,000 in consulting fees to the Democratic-affiliated political consulting firm. But the decision to hire National Consulting did not bode well for the Cveykus campaign.

Unlike his opponent, who had backing from most of Wisconsin’s state court of appeals judges, Cveykus did not receive a single endorsement from a current or former Wisconsin appellate court judge. And although Cveykus nominally raised $62,500 over the course of the campaign, that figure obscured the amount of popular support behind it—as most of the campaign contributions the Cveykus campaign received came directly from the candidate himself, in the form of a $40,000 personal loan to his campaign committee.

While his campaign was not as popular as he marketed it to be to the public, Cveykus did receive some from the Wisconsin Democratic Party apparatus. For instance, Cveykus received monetary support from Tricia Zunker, a former Democratic candidate for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, and Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg, a self-identified political “progressive.” Furthermore, Cveykus received an in-kind contribution from the Wisconsin Democratic Party—apparently, in the form of political consulting services.

The political support the Cveykus campaign received from the Wisconsin Democratic Party was not surprising. As the Wisconsin Law Journal reported, Cveykus had made a number of monetary contributions to Democratic candidates over the past decade—including one made just five and a half months before he declared his candidacy for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

In the end, though, Cveykus did not win. Instead, he lost to Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Gregory Gill, Jr.—a candidate who hired an extreme nationalist as his campaign manager and then endorsed fetal personhood later in the campaign. And Cveykus lost to him badly, by a 10 percent margin.

Several months ago, back in mid-October, Marathon County Circuit Court—Branch Two Judge Greg Huber filed a notification of non-candidacy with the Wisconsin Elections Commission, according to a document posted on the commission’s website. That notification informed the state elections commission that Judge Huber was not going to seek reelection.

Five weeks later, on the last day of November, William Harris, an attorney who works at Wisconsin Judicare and also serves as a Marathon County Board supervisor, announced his candidacy for the position on his campaign’s Facebook page. Branding himself as an agent of change, Harris argued that the “rights of both victims and defendants” need to be balanced in order “to ensure fairness” for all participants in the state court system, but also contended that state court judges need to “be more thoughtful in looking at rehabilitative solutions and not just purely punitive ones.”

Harris also discussed how being a member of a racial minority would inform his duties as a judge. “[A]s a black man, I will bring a different perspective, life experience, and a new voice to the [Marathon County Circuit Court],” he wrote.

One day after Harris announced his candidacy, the Cveykus campaign committee amended its registration statement to inform the state elections commission that Cveykus—who is white—was also going to be seeking election to the soon-to-be vacated judgeship on the Marathon County Circuit Court. The campaign committee’s amended registration statement indicates that, Carly Wilson, a senior associate at Nation Consulting, is serving as the committee’s treasurer.

A few weeks later, Cveykus announced his candidacy for the position on his personal Facebook page. “I can’t thank enough those who have supported me before, and have supported me to run again,” he wrote.

However, just like when Cveykus ran for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals last year, neither his campaign website nor his campaign’s Facebook page reveal a formal campaign platform—or anything remotely suggesting what the candidate might attempt to accomplish once elected as a circuit court judge. Undeterred by his lack of formal campaign platform, though, various Wisconsin state court judges—including Thomas Cane, former chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals—endorsed his campaign for the Marathon County Circuit Court.

Even so, Cveykus has raised little outside money in support of his candidacy for the Marathon County Circuit Court. According to his campaign committee’s campaign finance reports, Cveykus has raised a little more than $30,000 in support of his campaign efforts. However, a substantial portion (nearly 95 percent) of the campaign contributions he “received” actually came from himself, in the form of a large personal loan (amounting to $16,000) and large personal contributions (amounting to more than $10,000) to his campaign committee. And this doesn’t even take into account the outstanding $40,000 personal loan Cveykus made to his campaign committee when running for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals last year.

Unlike his campaign for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals last year, though, Cveykus now appears willing to go on an unfettered spending spree to get onto the Marathon County Circuit Court. So far, the Cveykus campaign has spent $3,000 on yard signs; $5,000 on online advertising; $8,000 on television advertising; and more than $33,000 on mailing services.

Cveykus only spent about $42,000 of the approximately $67,000 he raised when running for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals last year—leaving his campaign committee with approximately $25,000 on hand afterwards. But Cveykus has already spent more than $51,000 on his current candidacy for the Marathon County Circuit Court—leaving his campaign committee with just a little more than $4,000 on hand, not to mention the campaign committee’s still outstanding $56,000 in personal loans Cveykus made to it over the past two years.

In contrast, the majority of money Harris has raised in support of his candidacy for the Marathon County Circuit Court has come from outside sources. According to his campaign committee’s campaign finance reports, Harris has raised a little more than $6,500 in support of his campaign efforts—nearly 80 percent less than the amount raised by Cveykus thus far. And a substantial portion (nearly 95 percent) of the campaign contributions Harris “received” actually came from other people, rather than the candidate himself.

So far, the Harris campaign has spent approximately $500 on website development and design; $650 for access to a voter mailing list; $900 on yard signs; $1,300 on campaign brochures; and more than $2,000 on his campaign manager’s salary. But whereas Cveykus has already spent more than $51,000 on his candidacy for the Marathon County Circuit Court, Harris has spent a little less than $6,000 on his own candidacy for the position—nearly 90 percent less than the amount spent by the Cveykus campaign.

Even though his campaign is being heavily outraised and outspent by the largely self-financed Cveykus campaign, Harris has built a broad base of community support in Marathon County. Not only has Harris received endorsements from local community organizers and local community leaders, he has also received endorsement from influential local public officials, including Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg and Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon.

In an essay for Wisconsin Jurisprudence last June, I described in detail how, in his role as an appellate attorney, Cveykus has a long history of repeatedly violating the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure—notwithstanding his recent candidacy to become a Wisconsin appellate court judge.

Soon after writing that essay, I submitted a grievance against Cveykus with the OLR. Given my belief that Cveykus’s repeated violations of the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure constituted a clear violation of his professional responsibility as a lawyer to provide competent representation to his clients, I thought this would be the responsible (and prudent) thing to do. 

In the grievance against Cveykus, I primarily focused on his most recent conduct in an appellate court case, where (like in the past) he repeatedly failed to provide appropriate pinpoint citations—i.e., to a specific page or paragraph number—when citing court decisions in his legal briefs, in violation of the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure. However, I also noted that Cveykus made an objectively frivolous argument on behalf of his client in that case when he argued (and without any accompanying citation to legal authority, itself a violation of the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure) that his client was inappropriately charged, when appealing a municipal court judgment to the circuit court, for the costs of preparing a transcript of all the municipal court proceedings that had transpired to date—even though the text of Wis. Stat. § 800.14(5) explicitly permitted those costs to be charged to his client, the appealing party. I argued that Cveykus violated his professional responsibility as a lawyer to provide competent representation to his client in that case by engaging this conduct.

Nearly seven months after I had submitted my grievance, though, the OLR intake investigator assigned to my grievance finally sent me a boilerplate letter informing me that the OLR was not forwarding my grievance against Cveykus for a formal investigation because I failed to provide “sufficient proof” that he violated any of the Wisconsin Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys when representing his client in that appellate court case. However, the OLR intake investigator also informed me that I could obtain review of that decision by submitting a written request to the OLR director within 30 days.

So, that’s what I decided to do. I submitted a written request to the OLR director to review the OLR intake investigator’s decision not to forward my grievance against Cveykus for a formal investigation. Unlike the OLR intake investigator, I received a prompt response from the OLR director.

In his letter to me, the OLR director did not claim that I failed to provide “sufficient proof” that Cveykus violated any of the Wisconsin Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys. Instead, the OLR director concluded that the failure by Cveykus to provide appropriate pinpoint citations in the legal briefs he filed in his most recent appellate court case did not constitute “professional misconduct warranting discipline.” (Emphasis added.) The highlighted language indicates that the OLR director considered Cveykus’s repeated violations of the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure by Cveykus to be de minimus violations of the Wisconsin Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys, such that the OLR would exercise its discretion not to formally investigate or discipline Cveykus for his professional misconduct. 

In other words, the OLR director was not concluding that the failure by Cveykus to provide appropriate pinpoint citations in the legal briefs he filed in his most recent appellate court case comported with his professional responsibilities as a lawyer. Rather, the OLR director was making a discretionary determination that the OLR’s resources would be better spent prosecuting other attorneys who engaged in more egregious misconduct. However, the OLR director’s reasoning is flawed in several respects.

First, the OLR director failed to take into account that the failure by Cveykus to provide appropriate pinpoint citations in his appellate briefs in violation of the Wisconsin Appellate Rules of Procedure is not an isolated incident; it is part of a pattern of similiar conduct going back more than a decade (starting in 2011). Second, the OLR director inexplicably failed to address why the objectively frivolous argument Cveykus made on behalf of his client in his most recent appellate court case did not warrant disciplinary action. Finally, the OLR director did not address the failure by Cveykus, when making this objectively frivolous argument, to provide any citation to legal authority—a clear violation of the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure—did not warrant the imposition of discipline.

Less than two weeks after the director of the OLR inexplicably concluded (among other things) that discipline should not be imposed on Cveykus for his repeated violations of the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure, Cveykus had the audacity to tell the Star News that if elected “as a judge he would be a ‘stickler for rules.’” However, if the OLR had imposed some sort of discipline on Cveykus for repeatedly violating the Wisconsin Rules of Appellate Procedure, he might not have felt so brazen to make such a statement.

Like the DC Comics character Peacemaker, the OLR is a walking contradiction. The fictional Peacemaker is a pacifist diplomat who makes a solemn vow to create “peace,” regardless of “how many people [he has] to kill to get it.” Similarly, the OLR is an agency of the Wisconsin Supreme Court which makes a vow to protect “the public from misconduct by lawyers,” regardless of how many meritorious cases of egregious professional misconduct it must decline to sanction.

The OLR makes a mockery of regulating the behavior of unscrupulous lawyers in Wisconsin, which likely explains why the OLR currently has a dismal rating on Google reviews. Just like the fictional Peacemaker, the all-too-real OLR appears to be completely unaware that it has become an unseemly punchline—and a complete joke. 

But for the residents of Marathon County, who may soon be subject to the legal judgment of Cveykus—an apparently wealthy, but largely incompetent lawyer—the OLR’s continued failure to take its regulatory duties seriously is no laughing matter.

Aaron Loudenslager, Madison

Aaron Loudenslager is a Wisconsin lawyer, and a former candidate for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. 

During law school, he published numerous opinion columns with the country’s largest independent university student newspaper. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School, he served as a judicial law clerk and staff attorney throughout the Wisconsin court system. His writings have been published in a variety of publications, including the Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.