Saturday, August 30, 2008

Carthage to Kabul: A Journey of Law - THE CARTHAGINIAN

Erik Guenther, ’99, has a passion for justice. In the past year that passion took Mr. Guenther to war-torn Afghanistan.

Mr. Guenther, described by the Wisconsin State Journal as “a rising star in the state legal establishment and already a teacher in cutting-edge legal issues,” took six months off from his position with the Madison law firm of Hurley, Burish & Stanton to serve in the Justice Sector Support Program, a U.S. State Department program that seeks to establish the rule of law in Afghanistan.

“I enjoy my work here, but this seemed like a very interesting opportunity to do some good,” says Mr. Guenther, a criminal defense attorney. “I figure it would be a good learning experience. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.”

The program seeks to train lawyers, prosecutors, judges, correction officers and other persons in the justice system. According to Mr. Guenther, there are few defense attorneys and some judges are simply respected elders with no legal training.

Mr. Guenther describes the goal of the program as “working to create a legal system that people will trust and go to. Creating a more transparent legal system reduces opportunities for corruption.”

Bribery is widespread in the Afghan legal system, a situation Mr. Guenther blames on very low salaries. Smaller bribes are paid to change court dates, while larger ones can be paid to free defendants.

“Police like the idea of a defense lawyer, because it is easy to get falsely accused,” Mr. Guenther told the State Journal. By contrast, he said judges “were less accepting because they couldn’t as easily approach the accused for bribes.”

Mr. Guenther was impressed by the friendliness of Afghans.

“These are people who essentially have been at war for 30 years,” he points out. “How they maintained a sense of hope that things can change for the better, and a really sharp sense of humor, was impressive.”

The attorney is a Kenosha native who attended Carthage as a Lincoln Scholar. He graduated with a dual major in economics and business administration, and has returned to the College numerous times as a guest lecturer in constitutional law.

“Being at a school that size,” he says of Carthage, “if you make the effort you can really get to know professors who care enough about students to help them grow professionally.”

Mr. Guenther mentions Richard Custin, a former business administration faculty member who taught a course in the legal environment of business, as the Carthage professor who may have influenced him the most. Other faculty members he recalls with fondness include philosophy department chair Daniel Magurshak, and economics professors Yuri Maltsev and Robert Schlack.

A background in economics and business administration, Mr. Guenther says, “works out fairly well, for white-collar cases and when we’re representing businesses.”

Mr. Guenther then earned his law degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One of his teachers was Stephen Hurley, a Madison attorney who has represented several high-profile defendants. Mr. Guenther considers him a mentor.

“Working for Steve was my dream job,” Mr. Guenther says.

Before joining Mr. Hurley’s firm, Mr. Guenther was involved in a groundbreaking case in Racine, where he was practicing. Police raided a benefit concert and cited more than 400 people in attendance for being an “inmate of a disorderly house with narcotics,” although only four persons were arrested on drug charges.

Mr. Guenther, who learned about the case from a newspaper article, was recognized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin as “Volunteer Attorney of the Year,” after he handled the case on a pro bono basis.

“Picture going to a Dave Matthews or Rolling Stones concert in which law enforcement sees one person 10 rows up smoking a joint and then tries to ticket everyone,” Mr. Guenther told Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine. “We got everybody’s citation dismissed, and the police department to agree to never use the ordinance to shut down an advertised public event again.”

The Racine Journal Times later saluted Mr. Guenther as one of Racine County’s outstanding citizens of 2003.

“It takes tremendous courage to fight City Hall,” the newspaper observed. “As the Racine community has learned this year, attorney Erik Guenther is no coward.”

Mr. Guenther has become active in the ACLU, and presently is the board president of the Wisconsin affiliate.

“It’s a unique organization, in that its solely dedicated to the protection of the Bill of Rights,” he says. “I don’t agree with every case that its taken on, but its a very important organization to have.”

Looking ahead, Mr. Guenther won’t rule out political involvement, but says he has little interest in becoming a judge.

“You don’t referee if you can play ball,” he quips.

But for now, Mr. Guenther takes satisfaction in his current job.

“My work deals with people who are scared and in a difficult situation putting their trust in you,” he says, adding that as a defense attorney “I think you can do good work and earn a good living. I could probably be making more right now in other fields of law, but I’m very comfortable where I am.”