Thought Leaders


“This is a school that produces consequential people — from Bob LaFollette to Tammy Baldwin, from Tommy Thompson to Vel Phillips, from Jim Sensenbrenner to Gaylord Nelson.”

This observation came from former US Attorney General Eric Holder, in his 2016 address to UW Law graduates at their hooding ceremony. “All of these people considered things outside of themselves,” he went on. “These were people who thought and worked for the common good, people who made a difference.”

We add five alumni to General Holder’s list, each of whom represents UW Law’s 150-year tradition of graduating consequential lawyers. Whether they’re fighting for prison reform, defending survivors of workplace harassment and assault, working to improve educational outcomes for children, defending the US Constitution, or improving the juvenile court process, each is  transforming our world in uniquely brilliant ways.

While their missions and methods may differ, all five agree: with a UW Law degree comes a sense of duty. They visited UW Law last October, as part of its 150th anniversary celebration, to share their stories and to inspire the future attorneys to use their degrees to make a difference.

Debra Katz speaking at uw law talks
#MeToo is a call to legal practitioners to push for change on behalf of harassment victims, says Debra Katz. The Washington, DC, attorney has three decades of experience representing whistleblowers and victims of sexual harassment.

Debra Katz ’84: “Equal rights for women is not a hashtag; it’s a moral imperative.”

Just weeks after appearing with her client before the US Senate Judiciary Committee, Debra Katz came to UW Law School to describe the experience.

As the attorney for Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who had accused a Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault during their teens, Katz had an insider view of a historic moment. It was a moment of reckoning, she said, fueled by a #MeToo movement gone global and by the outing of alleged serial harassers like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer.

“As lawyers, we have a special responsibility to take a look at the structures that allow sexual harrassment and sexual violence to continue day to day, common as mud.”

Of that September day in Washington, Katz said, “For four hours the world was rapt, listening to the honesty of a terrified woman tell her truth about being sexually assaulted by now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.”

“Dr. Ford answered every question put to her,” she continued. “She testified about walking up a narrow staircase and being pushed from behind into a bedroom, being pinned to a bed, and having Brett put his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming. And she testified that was the most terrifying part of it all, because she thought he might inadvertently kill her.”

Days after Ford’s testimony, Kavanaugh would win confirmation in the Senate by a 50–48 margin. “That was quite a day. We left there angry but resolute, and I have to tell you I am more resolute than I have ever been,” Katz said.

She called on her audience, many of whom were lawyers and law students assembled to celebrate UW Law School’s 150th anniversary, to continue to force change: “As lawyers, we have a special responsibility to take a look at the structures that allow sexual harassment and sexual violence to continue day to day, common as mud.”

Lawyers need to shine a light on the disconnect between changing public opinion, the realities of the workplace, and the harassment laws on the books, Katz said. She cited Title VII, which sets a “ridiculously high standard” for proving that harassment is pervasive; mandatory arbitration, which stacks the odds against claimants; and nondisclosure agreements, which prevent victims from speaking out.

In spite of the ongoing challenges, and in spite of the Kavanaugh confirmation, Katz believes Ford’s testimony bolstered the #MeToo movement. But no one gets to sit this struggle out, she said, especially not attorneys. “Because equal rights for women is not a hashtag; it’s a
moral imperative.”

everett mitchell uw law talks
Judge Everett Mitchell is determined to give children who appear before him in Dane County Circuit Court respect, a voice, and a chance to thrive.

Everett Mitchell ’10: “I’m not your judge, I’m your reflection.”

The way Judge Everett Mitchell sees it, he got lucky.

Despite living through childhood poverty and the trauma of sexual abuse, he was able to get his life on track, thanks to the support of caring adults: “I needed help, and there were people along the way who gave me the help that I needed.”

Soon after taking the bench in 2016, Mitchell became alarmed at the number of young defendants growing up under similar tragic circumstances—children who are all too often funneled from the child welfare system into juvenile court, and ultimately winding up in the prison system, he said.

“These children had suffered sexual abuse and physical abuse. They had been neglected. They had lost their fathers and mothers and support systems,” he said. “And here they were before me in court, and we were trying to figure out what is the best way? What is the just way to assure that these children find a place in this court process that seems fair, kind, and loving?”

Mitchell banned the wholesale use of handcuffs and shackles on juvenile defendants in his courtroom during his first juvenile rotation; he eventually persuaded other Dane County judges to do the same. “I had to have the courage to say, no longer is this an okay practice,” he said. “I felt if I was elected, I was elected for a reason, and that is to ensure that our children know that the courtroom can be a fair place, that it can be a balanced place. So I had to change the presumption, from presuming that these children must be handcuffed to presuming that they should be free,” he said.

Mitchell wants to make sure young defendants — who are often sitting at counsel table, without friends or family members to advocate for them — learn to advocate for themselves. “I want to hear from the kids. I want to hear their stories, I want to know what they’re fighting against, what they’re struggling against,” he said.

“I felt if I was elected, I was elected for a reason, and that is to ensure that our children know that the courtroom can be a fair place, that it can be a balanced place.”

But Mitchell especially wants juvenile defendants to recognize  themselves in his story, and to see him as proof they can overcome tough odds and change the course of their lives, just like he did.

As he’s removed the handcuffs from the children and given them a voice, Mitchell has also invited youth offenders to sit in his chair, use his gavel, and even try on his robe.

“I’m not your judge. I’m your reflection,” he tells them.

rick raemisch speaking at the 150th uw law talks
As director of corrections for the state of Colorado, Rick Raemisch became a leader, both nationally and globally, in the movement to curb the use of solitary confinement.

Rick Raemisch ’88: “We were manufacturing our own problem.”

When it comes to reforming the United States prison system, Rick Raemisch says, “We don’t need to think outside the box. We need a new box. Period.”

That belief is grounded in Raemisch’s decades of experience in law enforcement and prison administration. He was recruited for his most recent job — as director of corrections for the state of Colorado — to address the overuse of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons.

Raemisch said Colorado’s overhaul of solitary confinement practices began under his predecessor, Tom Clements, who was killed by an ex-inmate who had spent years in solitary.

Raemisch gained international attention after spending twenty hours in solitary confinement and writing about it for The New York Times. He came out of that experience convinced that prolonged solitary confinement can cause inmates emotional damage that sometimes lasts a lifetime. When those inmates serve out their sentences and reintegrate into society, public safety is jeopardized, he said. “We’re sending people out of prison worse than they came in.”

“We don’t need to think outside the box. We need a new box. Period.”

Raemisch said 30 percent of the inmates who enter Colorado’s prison system suffer from mental illness. “We have two prisons dedicated to inmates with mental health issues,” he added. “We’re the largest mental health institution in the state of Colorado, as is every prison system in every state.”

Over his five years as director of corrections, Raemisch implemented sweeping changes and became a leader in the solitary reform movement. “Colorado today is the only state in the nation where the absolute maximum you can spend in solitary for any reason is fifteen days. And we banned the use of solitary — first by policy, then by statute — for those with mental health problems,” he said. In place of solitary cells, he built de-escalation rooms where prisoners can go to
reduce stress.

Raemisch maintains that these reforms make Colorado safer, both inside and outside of the state’s prisons. Incidents of prison violence have dropped dramatically, and inmates are no longer released from solitary confinement directly into the community.

“Prior to our reforms, there was a long waiting list from other facilities to get those offenders the mental health care they needed in those two mental health facilities. Today, because of our reforms, there are empty beds in both facilities,” he said.

“We were manufacturing our own problem by keeping people in solitary confinement.”

lester pines speaking at the 150th uw law talks
Madison attorney Lester Pines believes lawyers have a duty to protect the Constitution from the threats of an Article V convention. He has over forty years of litigation experience in state and federal courts.

Lestor Pines ’74: “Justice, justice, justice is what we should pursue.”

Lester Pines took the stage last October to issue a warning.

The Madison-based civil and criminal litigator wanted assembled attorneys, law professors, and law students to know about a clause in Article V of the US Constitution, which he believes poses a serious threat to American justice.

Article V lays out the Constitution’s amendment process. A proposed amendment becomes law after two-thirds of both Houses of Congress decide it is necessary, and three-fourths of the state legislatures ratify it. All twenty-seven constitutional amendments have been ratified in this manner.

But Pines said Article V outlines a method for bypassing Congress that flies under most Americans’ radars, a maneuver known as the constitutional convention. To form this convention of the states, two-thirds of the state legislatures must bring forth resolutions on the same issue. This method has not succeeded in the 230-year history of our Constitution, and it’s been used only once in US history.

In 1789 the Framers threw out the federal Articles of Confederation to completely revise the law of the land, resulting in our modern-day Constitution.

On the matter of creating a federal balanced budget amendment, the nation is currently six states away from the thirty-four states needed to set a constitutional convention in motion, and that’s too close for comfort, Pines said.

“We have to look at a big picture, and recognize that there is a danger to our Constitution.”

According to Pines, the danger in a 21st-century convention lies in the lack of particulars. “Here are the things we don’t know about a constitutional convention,” he explained. “First, how many delegates will there be? Second, how will they be chosen? Third, what will the rules be? Who will be in charge? How will the matters be considered? By what vote will these resolutions be adopted? Who
will pay?”

Because the Constitution doesn’t grant Congress authority to establish rules for a convention, nor does it give the Supreme Court jurisdiction over the outcome, control would likely fall into the hands of a powerful few, Pines said.

“The agenda of such a convention will be driven by a small group of highly motivated, highly ideological billionaires,” he cautioned. “A bunch of white men will get together to talk about amending the Constitution. However they want.”

Pines said two big conservative organizations — the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Convention of the States — are behind the push for states to convene over a balanced budget. Once they succeed, he fears these moneyed interests will put other parts of the Constitution on the bargaining table, like birthright citizenship and reproductive freedom. “We have to look at a big picture, and recognize that there is a danger to our Constitution,” he said.

Lawyers need to be especially vigilant on behalf of the American public, he said. “We as lawyers have an obligation to justice … justice, justice, justice is what we should pursue.”

Danae Davis speaking at the 150th uw law talks
Danae Davis, a Milwaukee education reformer, says her UW Law degree helped her forge a nontraditional career path at the intersection of passion and law.

Danae Davis ’80: “The systems are working against our young people.”

By her second year of law school, Danae Davis knew that she wasn’t going to be a conventional lawyer. She recognized where her strengths lay; she knew what inspired her — problem solving, finding common ground, and listening without judgment. And she trusted she would someday use her degree to make a difference in a powerful way, to find the place where passion and law meet.

After graduating from UW Law, Davis built a successful career in the private sector, which enabled her to support her son through college. Then she sought fulfillment through a new career, but it took patience and time to find her passion. “Long story short, I had a wonderful opportunity come my way to become the second executive director and then CEO of an organization called PEARLS for Teen Girls.”

“If we all take it upon ourselves to challenge those systems — blow them up, start them over — the impact on what happens in the classroom will be phenomenal.”

PEARLS is a program that promotes self-development and leadership skill-building for girls aged ten to nineteen, the time when girls are particularly at risk for exposure to sexual violence, bullying, and mental health issues. “The beauty of PEARLS is that we have girls from all backgrounds working together to build trusting relationships and learning how to set personal goals and be responsible and accountable young ladies.”

The organization saw impressive results during Davis’s tenure: 95 to 100 percent of the girls served chose not to get pregnant; 97 to 100 percent graduated from high school within four years; and 95 to 100 percent were accepted to at least one college. “This was their choice. These were their results. These were their actions,” Davis said.

The girls’ success, combined with Davis’s ability to develop strong networks “of believers and supporters and friends and partners,” meant PEARLS could sustain its growth strategy and serve an increasing number of teens.

Today Davis is the executive director of Milwaukee Succeeds, a community partnership dedicated to improving educational outcomes for children. “We unite all kinds of partner organizations around common strategies that they own,” she said. “And let me tell you, this work is hard.”

“The systems are working against our young people,” she said. “I’ve got a zip code in Milwaukee — 53206 — where there is not one quality child care center. That should be a crime.”

Every child needs the support of caring adults, and teachers who support all learning styles in all settings, she said. Families need support to ensure that kids aren’t only learning to read but reading to learn. Leaders need to take a hard look at college access and disparities in completion rates. “Why would we look at the disparities and say, ‘Oh, that’s somebody else’s problem. Isn’t that a shame?’” she asked.

“If we all take it upon ourselves to challenge those systems — blow them up, start them over — the impact on what happens in the classroom will be phenomenal,” Davis said.