New legal director, Ryan Cox joined the ACLU of Wisconsin in October 2023. As Legal Director, Ryan leads the organization’s work to vindicate individual rights through impact litigation in the state and federal courts, investigate government action, and advocate for vulnerable populations.

Welcome Ryan Cox, Legal Director

Ryan comes to the ACLU of Wisconsin by way of Texas where he previously had a focus on community and civil rights issues for many years. Immediately prior to joining our team, Ryan was Managing Attorney for the San Antonio Legal Services Association where he worked on housing and homelessness and disability issues, and prior to that, was Senior Staff Attorney in the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, leading its San Antonio office and bringing significant impact litigation across the state. Ryan is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and the St. Mary's University School of Law, and his public interest work has previously earned him recognition on the ABA's list of 40 young lawyers "On the Rise" across the country in 2018, and the "Outstanding Young Lawyer Award" from the Texas Young Lawyers Association in 2021, among others.

We asked new Legal Director, Ryan Cox, questions about his perspective on working on voting rights in Wisconsin and his take on leading this department.

What challenges do you see with Wisconsin voting rights legal work compared to your time in Texas?

Wisconsin is really a great place to be a voter. We have same-day and online voter registration, universal absentee voting, and an extended in-person early voting period. Nevertheless, there are challenges for many voters thanks to Wisconsin’s restrictive Voter ID law, the treatment of some voters with criminal records, decentralization of voting administration at the municipal level, and only spotty coverage of language access laws for voters who primarily speak a non-English language. We’ll be watching all of these issues in 2024.

How does community-centric lawyering work and why is this important?

It is our goal as a legal team to be good “community lawyers” because that means we are responding to the needs of the community instead of filing cases just because they will get headlines. Community lawyering means that we develop relationships with community organizations on the ground and seek their feedback before we take legal action that they might not care about, or that might even be counterproductive to their efforts in the community. This is extremely important if we want the ACLU of Wisconsin to be thought of as a trusted partner in the movement toward justice and equity, and it will make our work easier down the road if we are successful in building community.

How do you see the ACLU of Wisconsin's legal department developing in the future?

Our legal department has changed significantly in the past year, and is continuing to change as we work to build the capacity to help us succeed in the next decade and beyond.  This means we are working to recruit and hire a diverse and talented team of attorneys and to build the infrastructure to manage our wide-ranging dockets and the hundreds of requests for assistance we receive every month. In the near future, I see the legal team building additional expertise in subject areas of the law that we have not covered extensively in the past, and becoming more efficient in how we handle both litigation and non-litigation matters.  I also see the legal department leaning-in to our role with the broader organization to facilitate integrated advocacy approaches to the work – to solve problems in creative ways, and to be thoughtful about whether an advocacy, organizing, or education campaign might be a better solution than litigation on many of the issues we work on. While it is usually difficult for our members to participate in our litigation directly, it is often much easier to be directly involved with these other kinds of solutions–at events, trainings, at the legislature, and in the community.

What are some things you’d like members to know about the members of the legal team and your work?

Our legal team is small but brings significant expertise to the table in a wide range of areas. While I have primarily worked in the voting rights space for many years, I have also worked on criminal sentencing issues and prison reform, individual asylum cases, and a variety of civil rights issues based on the ADA, Equal Protection and others. Other attorneys on our team are focusing on specific areas of practice within our universe of work, including LGBTQ+ and gender issues, reproductive rights, disability rights, First Amendment work relating to speech and protesters rights, prisons and policing, immigration, and privacy and surveillance. And, as we continue to grow, we are hoping to expand our team further with even more specialized expertise in racial justice issues, housing rights, environmental justice, and Indigenous rights. Because we are part of a multi-facetted integrated advocacy team, we work collaboratively with our other departments on all of these issues, but then, if the pieces are in place and we cannot resolve issues in any other way, it is our responsibility to seek relief for communities in the courts as a last resort. Because every case we bring could come with years-long commitments, significant financial costs, and, even if we win, decades of monitoring and enforcement responsibilities, we have to be very careful and purposeful about the cases we choose to bring. It is my hope that our members understand that not every issue or injustice has a solution in the courts, and that just because we don’t file a case on a particular issue, that does not mean we have not studied it extensively or aren’t working on some other kind of solution or strategy on the issue.