Weight of the States

An illustration of the United States in red lines on a blue background, superimposed with a series of light blue stars, and featuring the words "Weight of the States" in the center.

State Democracy Research Initiative leads the way in focusing attention, creating resources and building community.

Several years ago, Miriam Seifter and Robert Yablon came to recognize that state-level law was both extremely important to the future of democracy and woefully understudied.

That realization led them to launch the State De­mocracy Research Initiative (SDRI) at University of Wisconsin Law School in 2021. Ever since, SDRI has been shining a spotlight on state-level democracy, government institutions and public law. Not just in Wisconsin, which has now famously drawn national media attention, but across the country.

“State-level issues deserve far more attention than they typically get,” Seifter said. “They play a huge role in people’s day-to-day lives and are central to our democracy. But you really can’t protect insti­tutions that you overlook or don’t understand.”

Faculty Co-Directors Seifter and Yablon, along with their staff, have generated academic research, amicus briefs and legal explainers, all housed for easy access on their website. They have fielded a plethora of newspaper, radio and television interviews, with more requests than they can accommodate. And they have hosted more than a dozen events, including the annual Election Matters Series and Public Law in the States Conference, to foster dialogue and build community.

It’s been fast paced from day one, Seifter said.

And all of that doesn’t even include their class­room responsibilities, which they still prioritize. Both have won Law School and university-wide awards for their teaching.

“Working at the State Democracy Research Initiative has been a critical part of my professional development. I’ve had a valuable opportunity to develop my legal research skills as well as contribute to the academic study of some foundational components of our political system.” — Thomas Tretheway, 3L

“Given that we are at a flagship state law school where many of our students go on to practice in state governments and in state courts, it is helpful for them to be exposed more systematically to state laws and institutions while they’re in law school,” said Yablon. “A lot of the core doctrinal curriculum they otherwise get is a nationalized curriculum and they can leave law school without a clear idea of what is distinctive about state systems.”

While Seifter and Yablon are widely published leaders in the fields of constitutional law, admin­istrative law and election law, one of the biggest challenges they faced was building an organization from the ground up.

“It really is like launching a startup,” Yablon said. “I don’t know the extent to which Miriam and I contemplated at the beginning that we would be spending time on things like designing logos, building websites and supporting a growing team of employees and interns.”

Another challenge is the meticulous work.

“State public law is a field without a lot of exist­ing, off-the-shelf resources to answer even basic questions,” Seifter said. “We have frequently found that we need to create the resources — to read and digest the constitutions, the case law, the statutes, the regulations, the informal documents.”

Putting all of that together is complicated.

“It definitely requires a lot of human time and investment of legal analysis, but we think the pay­offs are really great,” Seifter said.

Associate Professor Robert Yablon leads a panel discussion with state supreme court justices
for State Democracy Research Initiative’s “Public Law in the States: The Work of State Supreme Courts” event
on June 2, 2023, at Memorial Union on the UW–Madison campus. Photos by Ueda Photography.

Bree Grossi Wilde, SDRI’s executive director, took it one step further: It can be laborious to access even basic information like state court dockets.

“Sometimes you can find the case, sometimes you can’t,” she said, adding that if briefs or opinions are not available, they have to call clerks’ offices and sometimes even mail in fees.

Seifter, Yablon and Wilde all agree that their work has been extremely fulfilling, and they are grateful for support from the broader Law School community and beyond.

“We’ve managed to build an amazing team,” Seifter said. “We’re really proud to be working with each of our colleagues, and to be collaborating with so many great people outside of UW, too. Academia can be a solitary field, and this has given us a real sense of community.”

This year, SDRI is ex­panding its work and reaching broader audiences through the creation of interactive websites. The first two focus on state constitutions: The Democracy Principle allows users to explore state constitutional provisions related to democracy, and 50 Constitutions displays the searchable text of all states’ current constitutions. In addition, SDRI is developing a feature that allows users to access the constitutional history of each state, with Wisconsin as the pilot state, and more states to be added in the coming months.

And next year is expected to be as busy as ever.

In the 2023-24 academic year, SDRI will host Election Matters events on voting rights and the 2024 election; a panel discussion on state constitu­tions and climate change; two scholarship roundta­bles; a roundtable between academics and practi­tioners; and the fourth annual Public Law in the States Conference — with more still to come.

“Our work to date has been both reactive and proactive,” Yablon said. “We try to offer informed legal analysis of pending cases and unfolding events. In 2024, there will likely be a flurry of election-re­lated lawsuits around the country, and we will no doubt spend time following those and trying to engage with them. But we’re also trying to foster a community of academics and practitioners who are taking state laws and institutions seriously. Moving forward, our goal is to contribute to the long-term project of building strong and resilient state demo­cratic systems while remaining attentive to near-term issues and challenges as well.”


A man and a woman in business attire sit together on stone steps. They are Robert Yablon and Miriam Seifter, Co-Directors of the State Democracy Research Institute.
Robert Yablon (left) and Miriam Seifter (right). Photo by Nick Wilkes.

Faculty Co-Directors: Partners at Work … And at Home

Before joining University of Wisconsin Law School and creating this new hub for people interested in state-level democracy, Miriam Seifter and Robert Yablon worked as litigators at top national law firms, briefing and arguing cases in state and federal courts across the country.

Seifter served as a law clerk for then-Judge Mer­rick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Yablon also clerked for Justice Ginsburg, where he and Seifter met as co-clerks. And he clerked for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as well as for Judge William Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

For those who didn’t know, yes, they are married. And having two elementary-school-age children leads to interesting conversations at home.

“It’s always a juggle, but of course there’s no one I’d rather manage it with,” Seifter said. “We met working together, so it doesn’t seem that strange to us. At one point we realized our kids didn’t know that not all parents work together.”

“Sometimes the kids weigh in with surprisingly good insights,” Yablon added. “Other times they make very clear that it’s time to stop talking about work for the day.”


About the Staff

A headshot of Bree Grossi Wilde smiling at the camera.Bree Grossi Wilde

Executive Director, since July 2022

Most recent previous position: Career law clerk for Judge William Conley of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin for 12 years

Why I took this position: I joined SDRI in large part inspired by the work and vision of the Co-Faculty Directors, Professors Miriam Seifter and Robert Yablon. The executive director position provided me an opportunity to leverage organizational skills and engage in new areas of law. My hope was that I could take on the bulk of the administrative responsibilities to free up Rob and Miriam’s time to devote to scholarship.

Most rewarding experience so far: I’m really proud of the various gatherings that we have hosted over the last year. We’ve supported cutting-edge academic research on state law, provided a space for state court judges to engage with academics, and fostered relation­ships between academics and practitioners focused on state-related democracy issues. We also provide a lot of free CLEs for alums looking for credits.

It takes tremendous talent to do this work. Learn more about the staff of the State Democracy Research Initiative.


Photo of Emily Lau smiling at the camera.Emily Lau

Staff Attorney, since August 2022, upon earning J.D.

Why I took this position: I developed an interest in state government institutions and democracy during my time working in state government and through my coursework in law school. I also knew that I wanted to pursue a career that involved research, so SDRI was a perfect fit for both my sub­stantive and career interests.

Most rewarding experience so far: I have really enjoyed working on amicus briefs with other mem­bers of the team.


Photo of Derek Clinger smiling at the camera.Derek Clinger

Senior Staff Attorney, since August 2022

Most recent previous position: Partner at an election law firm in Co­lumbus, Ohio (McTigue & Colombo)

Why I took this po­sition: I went to law school wanting to work on issues of democracy and governance, and I was really drawn to SDRI’s mission of drawing attention to these types of issues specifically at the state level, where so many important decisions are made often with little public awareness. It has been a real joy to work on such fascinating and important issues in such a supportive environment.

Most rewarding experience so far: I’m proud of the amicus briefs that we’ve prepared and filed in several important democracy cases, though we’re still waiting for several decisions.


Photo of ALlie Boldt smiling at the camera.Allie Boldt

Legal Research Director, since July 2021

Most recent previous position: Attorney, Wisconsin Department of Safety & Professional Services

Why I took this po­sition: I was thrilled to join the Initiative at its inception and return to working on democracy law issues after a brief hiatus. My position allows me to draw upon my state legal experience and my passion for democracy. Directing long-term legal research projects is an exciting challenge.

Most rewarding experience so far: The opportu­nity to work with and get to know UW Law students. Our students rock!


Photo of Adam Sopko looking into the camera.Adam Sopko

Staff Attorney, since September 2022

Most recent previous position: Law clerk to Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner, New Jersey Supreme Court

Why I took this position: I wanted to work on cutting-edge research into state courts and constitu­tions. In that way, SDRI was a perfect fit because of its unique mission to study public law and institutions at the state level.

Most rewarding experience so far: Seeing our research relied on by courts, scholars, policymakers and the media, and knowing that our work is making a difference to help solve some of the biggest issues facing our democracy.

Editor’s Note: Since this summer’s print deadline for the magazine, three staffers have joined the SDRI team: Bryna Godar, staff attorney; Harry Isaiah Black, staff attorney; and Evan Schumacher, program coordinator. You can click on their names to read their bios.


How to Donate

SDRI hopes to secure funding to expand its work in the years ahead. For information on how to support SDRI’s efforts, please contact Executive Director Bree Grossi Wilde at 608-890-2923. Donations can also be made through SDRI’s website.

By Jennie Broecker