Jerry Kopel

March 29, 2007


A state senator made minor news by declining an appointment to the judiciary committee. "Too many lawyers."

That wasn't accurate. Only two of the recently appointed seven member Senate Judiciary Committee are attorneys, according to their occupational description in the 2007 legislative directory.

When I was first elected to the House in 1965, lawyers made up 30 percent of the legislative membership. You literally had to fight your way onto the House Judiciary Committee. Of the 13 members of the judiciary committee , eleven were attorneys. In the Senate, eight of the eleven member judiciary committee were attorneys.

In 2007, attorneys or retired attorneys, or those close to graduating law school number five in the Senate and 14 in the House.

That's not a devastating drop until you look at the number of attorneys, practicing or retired, who are still on the lawyer registration list kept by the state Supreme Court clerk's office.

Each lawyer, active or inactive, when admitted to practice, is given a registration number. Mine is in the two hundreds. As of  Jan. 2, 2007, there were 32,012 persons still on the list, out of 38,422 originally entered. Who received the first number 001? Former Supreme Court Justice Eddie Day, now deceased, who stood in line at the clerk's  office to get that first number.

But nineteen out of 32,000?  Lawyers are, by training, prepared to become legislators. Law school courses include legislative drafting and constitutional law, which subject is brought up often during legislative debate.

Constitutional law is a major subject on the bar examination. Mock courtroom debates mimic the "give and take" arguments in the House and Senate. And knowing when to stand fast or back off and compromise on a bill is the same as negotiating a contract dispute or a prison sentence.

Being trained to serve is not the same as being willing to sacrifice for public duty. Many years ago, Governing Magazine quoted a law school dean from a very rural South lecturing his students:

"When you finish law school, go back to your home towns and make yourself visible. Eat lunch on the benches outside the courthouse.  Run for the state legislature and pray like hell you get beat."

Being a lawyer-legislator should be tempting for those who can see profit at the end of the tunnel, but in 22 years of serving there were only two instances known to me when a lawyer-legislator took unethical advantage of the system.

One sold his services for $5,000 to write a bill on behalf of a "special interest" which bill would be considered in the upcoming session in which he was serving.

The other lawyer-legislator attempted to push through an amendment to a bill that would relieve a paying client of his from regulatory liability. A full-page Rocky Mountain News editorial was devoted to castigating his various infractions and noted: "Time and again, he has used legislative powers to protect the interests of his private legal practice. At what point does a senator become just another lobbyist who also happens to vote?"

Two out of possibly several hundred who served during my tenure is not too bad.

Three out of four of the present leadership positions (two majority leaders and one speaker) are held by lawyers or law students who have shown themselves to be enormously capable and a point of pride for the profession.

If those rural lawyers in the Governing article had been my students, I would have said:

"Run for the legislature and pray like hell that you win."

                                                        * * *

Sen. Joe Biden's remarks about Sen. Barack Obama's "cleanliness" brought back  memories from 49 years ago. I was graduated from law school in 1958 and began legal practice with my wife Dolores.  Getting business was hard.

I dropped in on one of my favorite professors at Denver University Law School, Charles (Chizzie) Works. He used to demonstrate destroying a Will by lighting a match to it, throwing the paper into a wastebasket where other trash often caught fire.

Chizzie, who had been a member of the 1924 Colorado House, which was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, asked me how I was doing and I responded "not too well".

He immediately put in a call to State Attorney General Duke Dunbar and said "I have someone here I think you can use. He's Jewish, but he's clean-cut."

And that is how I got my second state government job, as a special assistant attorney general assigned to draft bills for the legislature.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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