Activist attorney – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin


On Jan. 20, the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Madison attorney Lester Pines delivered a call to action at a special social justice Shabbat service at Temple Beth El on the near west side. The most polarizing politician in American history had just been elected and the country was reeling, but many members of the Jewish community felt especially troubled. During the campaign, Trump was praised by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who celebrated the new political era with Nazi salutes and anti-Semitic propaganda in the original German. And in the months that followed Trump’s election, waves of bomb threats targeted Jewish community centers. In Madison and in synagogues across the country, there was fear and unrest.

“Immediately following the election and those activities, I found myself deep in dystopian thought,” Pines told the congregation. He quoted British journalist Ben Judah of The Jewish Chronicle, who wrote of Trump’s penchant for coded anti-Semitism and of a country jarringly transformed by the 2016 campaign — American Jews, who had rarely experienced the degree of discrimination faced by their European counterparts, must now contend with a new reality where anti-Semitism is an omnipresent “background melody” in political life, Judah wrote.

The piece “captured what I, and I suspect many of you, felt in the days after Nov. 8,” Pines said. “But in the ensuing weeks my attitude changed. I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. This is not Europe where Jews have never been fully accepted as equal citizens. This is not like the Arab countries where Jews were dhimmi, second class citizens. This is America.’”

Pines, 67, is well-known in Madison and throughout the state as a founding partner of the law firm Pines Bach, formerly Cullen Weston Pines & Bach. Widely considered one of the state’s top civil and criminal litigators, Pines has made news in recent years for mounting legal challenges to the policies pushed by Gov. Scott Walker and the state GOP. He’s also developed a reputation for speaking up about social justice issues, something that sets him apart from many of his colleagues.

Now approaching retirement age, Pines is preparing the next generation of lawyers to lead the firm and carry on its tradition of independence and advocacy. At the same time, he’s also ramping up his commitment to political activism in response to the rise of Trump. But he’s doing much of it behind the scenes, through private — and often bipartisan — conversations with some of Wisconsin’s top elected officials and community leaders.

“People who are Jewish should talk to their friends who aren’t Jewish,” Pines tells Isthmus. He won’t divulge who he’s been reaching out to — the conversations were never intended to receive media attention — but he says the dialogues have been well-received and productive.

“In my conversations [with public figures], I realized that because of the political differences and the hyper-partisanship that’s been going on in Wisconsin for 20 years or more, on a day-to-day basis we inhabit a different cultural and political world,” Pines says. “But there’s a lot of goodwill. They are receptive to what I have to say. ”

The majority of attorneys, as they develop their practices, tend to keep their political and social views to themselves, says former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske. Lawyers frequently advocate positions on behalf of their clients that they don’t personally hold, and they can do so ethically and professionally so long as their argument remains within the bounds of the law. And remaining publicly neutral means they’re not “shutting the door” on the opportunity to represent clients with different political views, which can help pay the bills.

“But there are lawyers, and Lester Pines is a perfect example, who really want to live and practice their passion,” Geske says. “Lester is one of those who does it with class and with great professionalism.”

Seated at a table in his downtown Madison office on the ninth floor of the Hovde building, Pines is surrounded by memories — legal awards, framed newspaper clippings, photos of his family. He adores talking about his daughters and grandchildren, and in recent years has been digging into his family history and genealogy. Pines, a second-generation American immigrant, isn’t the first member of his family possessed with an independent spirit and a social justice mindset.

His family originated in Lithuania, a country that was uniquely affected by the Holocaust. More than than 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population was systematically murdered by German death squads during the Nazi occupation — with help from collaborating non-Jewish Lithuanian neighbors. But even before the Holocaust, Jews faced discrimination in Lithuania, and in response to rising anti-Semitism, Pines’ grandfather, Moses Paiewonsky, left home in the late 1870s and settled in the British Virgin Islands. He was 13. He earned his living first as a peddler, eventually opening a general store on the island of St. Thomas, which was an important refueling station for ships crossing the Atlantic. “My grandfather was very entrepreneurial and was the brains of the family,” Pines says.

Over time, more relatives left Lithuania, where the situation for Jews was worsening, and settled in the Virgin Islands; some made trips home and returned to the Caribbean with Lithuanian brides. Moses and one of his brothers moved to the Dominican Republic to expand the family business. They were likely the only Jews in the country, Pines says. But while the family escaped political upheaval in Europe, unrest followed them to the Dominican Republic when the U.S. seized control of the nation in 1916. Pines’ father, Ansel Paiewonsky, got involved with an opposition group and in 1918 was taken into custody by American authorities, who turned him over to his mother, Pines says. “She sent him to New York City to keep him out of trouble.”

In the U.S., Ansel studied dentistry, first at New York University and later at the University of St. Louis in Missouri. He returned to the Dominican Republic and began teaching at the University of Santo Domingo, where he is said to have “modernized clinical dental training” in the country. But by this time it was the 1940s, and the dictator Rafael Trujillo was in power. Ansel witnessed Trujillo’s militia drag university students from class and shoot them in a courtyard — an incident that deeply affected him. He became an outspoken opponent of the regime after that, but had to flee the country in 1944 when he learned that Trujillo had ordered that he be killed within the next 24 hours. He escaped with his family to St. Louis, the only familiar place to him in the U.S. Ansel changed the family name from Paiewonsky to Pines when he became a naturalized citizen.

“My father always communicated to me the importance of standing up for what you believe in and to have the courage of one’s convictions,” Pines says. Born in St. Louis in 1950, Pines didn’t think much about his family’s immigrant roots growing up. But looking back, he marvels at the bravery it took for his ancestors to leave their home behind at a young age and start over in a new place — several generations in a row. “There’s a certain personality trait that must run in the family,” he says.

Over the past two years, Pines and his wife, Roberta Gassman, have embarked on “legacy trips” to the Virgin Islands and Lithuania to explore deeper the family’s history. Gassman’s family also hails from Lithuania — her great-grandparents lived in a town less than 35 miles from her husband’s ancestors. “What are the odds that we met up, two generations later, on Mills Street in Madison,” Pines says.

Last year, in Lithuania, the couple visited the graves of their ancestors and the towns where they lived. They also toured the killing fields and the sites where those who died in the Holocaust — including Gassman’s great-grandparents — were murdered and buried in mass graves. This year, they went to the Virgin Islands, where several cousins still live.

“It’s a pretty incredible family,” says Gassman, who sees unmistakable similarities between her husband and his relatives in the Caribbean, several of whom are entrepreneurs and elected leaders. “There’s a high premium on education and following politics.”

Gassman, a former secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development under Gov. Jim Doyle, was the one who suggested that her husband go to law school back when they were dating as UW-Madison students in the late 1960s. They both studied social work and met volunteering at Neighborhood House Community Center, a settlement house for immigrants in the Greenbush neighborhood. “He’s always been a very good negotiator, a good strategist,” Gassman says. “He was born carrying a briefcase.”

Pines graduated from the UW-Madison Law School in 1975 with several job offers, but decided instead to start his own practice. The move was highly unusual at the time, and “it’s still quite unusual now,” Pines says. “[The founding partners] did it because we had ideas about who we wanted to be as lawyers…. It was that streak of independence.”

Gassman remembers the early days of the practice, when the couple was living off $7,500 a year and renting an apartment on Norris Court for $92 a month. They lived simply, often spending Saturday “date nights” at home watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But they were active in local politics and frequently hosted fundraisers for progressive causes and candidates. Later, the couple moved with their daughters to the west side, where they still reside. “We’ve loved living here and raising our daughters here,” Gassman says. “It’s been a great place for us to do our work.”

As a young lawyer, Pines didn’t shy away from high-profile cases. He defended David Fine, one of the men who carried out the 1970 bombing of the Army Mathematics Research Center in UW-Madison’s Sterling Hall that killed researcher Robert Fassnacht. In 1976, he helped quell a three-day prison uprising at the Waupun Correctional Institute by going into the prison — where armed inmates had taken 14 hostages — and negotiating an agreement to end the standoff. He was 26 years old. “To me, that really tells the story of Lester,” Gassman says. “It was pretty extraordinary.”

Last September, Cullen Weston Pines & Bach became Pines Bach and unveiled a new tagline for the firm: “Deep roots, new branches.” The name change represents a shift in the firm and hints toward a new chapter in the practice. As the founders approach retirement age, younger partners are preparing to take on leadership roles. But Pines has been laying the groundwork behind the scenes for years.

“It’s very hard for law firms that are first-generation law firms, where founders are still there, to transition to younger partners and have the firm, as an institution, continue,” he says. “But that’s what we’re doing. I’m going to be around for a while, I’m not going anywhere, but it’s very important that younger partners and younger associates maintain the culture of this firm — it’s a very independent, very unusual practice.”

Tamara Packard, a partner at Pines Bach, is part of the next generation poised to take over the firm when the founders retire. Hired shortly after graduating law school, Packard became a full partner in 2006 and has been with the firm nearly 20 years. She considers Pines not only a mentor and role model, but also an equal. “We’ve sort of got the mind-meld thing going on,” she says of her boss. “We will work together on a case brief — I write one part and he writes another — and it comes out looking like one person wrote it.”

Packard agrees that the firm’s independence over the years has allowed it to evolve. Pines Bach spent decades representing public sector labor unions, but when Gov. Walker’s Act 10 passed in 2011, those cases began to drop off. So the firm adapted and began representing state employees without the help of labor unions to handle personnel appeals. “We have been able to serve a lot of those same interests but in different ways, because we have that agility,” Packard says.

Pines is determined to have the distinct culture of the firm endure beyond his retirement. That means having younger partners supervising associates, running practice groups, directing meetings and doing legwork for future planning, Packard says. “It’s all very purposeful and very thoughtful.”

In the Jewish faith, there’s a concept called tikkun olam, which translates to “the repair of our world.” It’s an ancient teaching rooted in Scripture described in the Torah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.”

“[Pines] is a marvelous example of living this tradition to the fullest,” says Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El, who invited Pines to address the synagogue in January. “He is a person who’s an activist, someone who’s willing to speak his mind, and a person who knows what to say. He has substance.”

The Jewish community faces “particular dangers” as a result of the 2016 campaign rhetoric that has emboldened anti-Semites, Biatch says. But the religious traditions of the Jewish community also call for its members to take action and stand up against injustice. Pines evoked the concept of tikkun olam in his Inauguration Day speech, weaving the philosophy into a plan of action to resist and reshape the far-right political landscape.

“As Jews, we know from our history as a people about the horror of expulsion, deportation and persecution by governments. Our mantra since the Holocaust has been: ‘Never again.’ That phrase does not just apply to Jews,” Pines said on Inauguration Day. “Our resistance can be physical, through sanctuary, or through legal means but, regardless of how we do it, we must resist.”

Pines isn’t yet worried about the physical safety of Jews and other marginalized people in America — this isn’t Europe in the 1930s, he says. But he’s disturbed by the rise of the alt-right and the extremist ideology behind the movement. To resist what he describes as a “rising fascist movement,” he believes individuals must confront and disrupt intolerance directly, using every tool and platform available — in-person conversations, social media postings, political demonstrations and donations to organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union.

When asked about whether lawyers should engage in partisan battles or fight authoritarianism, Pines pauses to consider.

“That’s an interesting question,” he says. He recalls a period of time immediately after the passage of Act 10 when Dane County judges were “personally, publicly attacked” for ruling against the Walker administration — lambasted, that is, for acting independently as is their duty. “Very few lawyers spoke up in defense of the judges,” he laments. “Privately they were very unhappy, but publicly they did very little. In fact, the State Bar Association did nothing, which was shocking to me.”

Pines is troubled by the increasing politicization of the judiciary, an institution he feels is “under attack” from groups at the state and federal levels that seek to stack the courts with “the most conservative judges possible.”

“The number one thing that lawyers need to do is insist on an independent judiciary,” he says. “We have to ensure that judges are elected because they are independent — not for their partisan political beliefs. That’s where lawyers can play an important part, if they’re willing to speak up. And they need to do that.”

As for whether Pines would ever consider running for office — perhaps a judgeship — he laughs and says, “No way.”

“Judging is a fairly isolating job, and part of the thing I enjoy about being a lawyer is my practice,” he says. “Secondly, I really am an advocate — I don’t think I would enjoy being neutral.”

He also believes that people from his era should step aside and let younger generations step into leadership roles. Pines has no enthusiasm for candidates like Mayor Paul Soglin, who is considering a run for governor in 2018.

“I’ll be perfectly frank and blunt with you — I think the baby boomers are obsessed with the 1960s, and that obsession is practically a mental illness,” he says. “What happened 50 years ago is no longer relevant to our current political situation. Times have changed, and I think baby boomers are having a hard time grasping that.”

While Pines’ succession planning has laid the groundwork to ensure future leadership at his firm, he laments the fact that Democrats and progressives have failed to recruit and prepare new generations of candidates. He urges progressive Gen X-ers and millennials to come forward and put their names on some ballots. Yes, the Republicans are well-funded, but don’t be intimidated, he says. Because if the status quo doesn’t change, they’re going to get beaten. “Look at the Republican candidates, they’re all younger,” he points out. “The fact that they’re cult members is irrelevant.”

But above all else, the new generation of progressives must focus on unity.

“We need to talk about people’s needs and not about policies, and we need to talk across racial, ethnic and gender lines,” he says. “We need to start talking about the commonalities that people share, not the differences.”

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