Law Forward is a new law firm meant to push back against conservatives

Doug Poland, left, and Jeff Mandell, right, of Law Forward. Photos by Tracy Harris, Cricket Design Works.

MADISON – Two attorneys who have represented Democrats launched a nonprofit law firm Thursday focused on redistricting and election litigation, just as Wisconsin prepares for a new fight over legislative and congressional maps.

It’s called Law Forward, and it’s meant to push back against conservative causes.

“It’s a response to the use of Wisconsin, or the misuse of Wisconsin, as a testing ground for all of these radical ideas (by conservatives),” said Jeff Mandell, the president and founder of Law Forward.

The firm β€” named after the state’s “Forward” motto β€” will be led by Mandell and Doug Poland, both of whom are partners at the Stafford Rosenbaum law firm. Mandell quietly established Law Forward late last year and the pair unveiled it on Thursday. 

Mandell and Poland are involved in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to loosen some election rules to make voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic. A federal appeals court declined to make any changes to the rules and the U.S. Supreme Court must now decide whether to take the case. 

In the future, Law Forward will handle similar cases, Mandell and Poland said. 

“Everybody who’s eligible to vote should be able to vote,” said Poland. “And if there are measures that are taken in the future that hamper that ability then I think Law Forward will be there.”

Mandell and Poland did not disclose who is funding Law Forward or how large its budget is. To start, Law Forward will have one employee β€” Mel Barnes, who has served as the legal and policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. Mandell and Poland will remain at Stafford Rosenbaum but will lead Law Forward’s litigation efforts. 

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton are heading Law Forward’s 16-member legal advisory council. Among the others on the council are Peter Earle, an attorney who challenged election maps Republicans drew in 2011; Ed Fallone, a Marquette University Law School professor who ran twice unsuccessfully for state Supreme Court; Paul Higginbotham, a retired state appeals judge; Richard Niess, a retired Dane County Circuit Court judge; and Dean Strang, a high-profile defense attorney. 

β€œLaw Forward is essential infrastructure to protect the rule of law in Wisconsin,” Feingold said in a statement. 

Law Forward is partnering this fall with Stacey Abram’s group Fair Fight on what they call an “election protection” effort in case anyone faces trouble casting ballots.

After the new round of redistricting begins next year, the group will likely swoop in if the courts get involved, as is expected.

Lawmakers will have to draw new districts for the Legislature and Congress to account for population changes, and the way the lines are drawn can greatly favor one party over the other. Republicans are expected to control the Legislature next year and they are unlikely to see eye to eye with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on the maps. That would leave it to courts to decide how to draw the maps.

It’s a fight Poland knows well. He was involved in two years-long cases over the maps Republicans drew in 2011 to benefit their party. The first lawsuit resulted in changes to two Assembly districts on Milwaukee’s south side. The second lawsuit saw initial success but fizzled after the U.S. Supreme Court determined in cases from other states that federal courts couldn’t throw out maps if they were drawn purely for partisan advantage.

Mandell said he saw a need for Law Forward because it can address issues that groups focused on LGBTQ rights, abortion access and environmental issues can’t.

“There’s very little work being done on these crucial issues about how democracy works, and how it continues to work, that affect all those issues and cut across those issues,” he said. “And as a result too often those issues wind up being the ball that falls between the outfielders and that nobody’s paying attention to but is in many ways the most crucial moment of the whole inning.”

In some ways, Law Forward will serve as a counterbalance to the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which for nearly a decade has led conservative efforts in Wisconsin’s courtrooms. 

In response to the announcement, WILL President Rick Esenberg said in a statement: “Oscar Wilde said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think the legal left has been lavishly represented but we look forward to standing up for our Constitution and the rule of law.”

For years, Mandell and Poland have worked on litigation that intersects with politics. Poland has represented Democratic voters, though not the Democratic Party. Mandell has represented Evers and others. 

In addition to the recent election lawsuit, they have both worked to keep people on the voter rolls that WILL has tried to remove.

Mandell and Poland successfully challenged the ability of the Green Party to get its presidential ticket on Wisconsin’s ballot, which Democrats feared would take votes away from Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Similarly, Mandell worked on the effort to keep rapper Kanye West off Wisconsin’s presidential ballot. He also headed an unsuccessful challenge to lame-duck laws that limited the power of Evers.

Mandell and Poland have also gone to court to try to make sure absentee ballots collected at Madison’s “Democracy in the Park” events would be counted. That case is ongoing.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.