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State Bar of Wisconsin agrees to change diversity definition in lawsuit settlement

Missing Gavel
Posted at 9:26 AM, Apr 05, 2024

MADISON (AP) — The Wisconsin association representing attorneys agreed Thursday to change the definition of "diversity" to settle a federal lawsuit brought by a conservative law firm that argued its internship program unconstitutionally discriminates based on race.

The State Bar of Wisconsin said that under terms of the settlement, its "diversity clerkship program" would continue unchanged under the new definition.

But the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which brought the lawsuit in December, declared victory, saying in a statement that "mandatory and annual State Bar dues will not fund internships and policies primarily based on race, but rather on merit and diversity of viewpoint."

The lawsuit was one of many filed across the country targeting diversity, equity and inclusion programs in the private and public sectors after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down affirmative action in college admissions, declaring that race cannot be a factor.

The original definition of "diversity" for the Wisconsin program said the concept includes race, ethnicity, gender identity and other factors. The new definition simply says it involves "including people with differing characteristics, beliefs, experiences, interests, and viewpoints."

Under the deal, the bar association must also clearly say in all materials related to the program that race is not a factor in considering participation in the program, according to the conservative law firm.

The bar association also may not say that only law students from diverse backgrounds, with backgrounds that have been historically excluded from the legal field, or who have been socially disadvantaged are eligible, the law firm said.

The program in question offers summer internships for first-year law school students at top law firms, private companies and government offices. Past participants have included Alliant Energy, Froedtert Health, the Kohler Co., the city of Madison, the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the state Department of Corrections.

On its website, the bar association says the program is for University of Wisconsin and Marquette University law school students "with backgrounds that have been historically excluded from the legal field." But the lawsuit alleged that is a new focus and that the program has historically been touted as a way to increase racial diversity among attorneys at law firms, private companies and in government.

About 600 internships have been created under the program since it began 30 years ago, according to the bar association.

"The settlement clarifies the definition of 'diversity' but makes no changes to the program," Larry J. Martin, bar association executive director, said in a statement Thursday. "The Diversity Clerkship Program, which has been creating opportunities for Wisconsin-based law students for three decades, will continue to exist and to operate in its current form."

The State Bar of Wisconsin is a mandatory professional association, created by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, for all attorneys who hold a law license in the state. It has about 25,000 members.