Ask any passersby: "What do legislators do when the legislative session ends?" After a quick and obscene response, the next reply will likely be "practice law".
The perception of legislators as lawyers still exists and is probably due to high visibility of lawyers in Congress. But, as pointed out in a recent GOVERNING magazine article, "Since l976, the number of lawyers in legislatures has declined by nearly a quarter, from more than 22 percent of all lawmakers to less than l7 percent."
When I first entered the Colorado legislature in l965, lawyers made up thirty percent of the membership. You had to literally fight your way onto the House Judiciary Committee. In l993, only twenty of the 100 Colorado legislators were lawyers. And "twenty percent" places Colorado in a tie for 20th place among the 50 state legislatures. In Colorado the largest bloc of members today consists of "businessman/businesswoman" and/or "legislator".
In l994, with Sen. Cassidy "elevated" to lieutenant governor, ten of the present nineteen lawyers in the legislature are Democrats and nine are Republicans. At least three won't be legislators in 1995...Bob Pastore and Ruth Wright have retired, and Steve Ruddick will become a county judge.
Lawyers in the Fifty-ninth General Assembly do have high visibility positions. Five of the nine Republicans are leaders or chair committees and four are first-termers.
In the House, both Speaker Chuck Berry and Majority Leader Tim Foster are attorneys, and that combination in l991-92 was Berry and Scott McGinnis. Having attorneys as both Speaker and Majority Leader is almost UNIQUE in recent Colorado history. You need to go back to 1961-62 to find two attorneys in those positions at the same time: Speaker Al Tomsic and Majority Leader Allen Dines.
Attorneys have been House Speaker only eight of the past thirty years. In the Senate, the last attorney to preside over the Senate was Lieutenant Governor Bob Knous in 1966.
The Senate does have five attorneys in leadership positions: Majority Leader Jeff Wells, Minority Leader Michael Feeley, Assistant Minority Leader Bill Thiebaut, Education Chair Al Meiklejohn and Transportation Chair Dick Mutzebaugh.
But "good old" Judiciary Committee is no longer the bastion of attorneys. Presently, less than half of the 22 House and Senate Judiciary Committee members are attorneys. And with the retirement in l992 of Pat Grant, the House (Jeanne Adkins) and Senate (Dottie Wham) Judiciary Committees are BOTH chaired by non-attorneys for the FIRST time in my memory and possibly for the first time in Colorado history.
Lawyers are, by training, prepared to become legislators. Law school courses include legislative drafting. 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 points on a contract dispute.
But being trained to serve is not the same as being willing to sacrifice for public duty. GOVERNING magazine quotes a law school dean from the rural south lecturing his students:
"When you finish law school, go back to your home towns and make yourselves visible. Eat lunch every day on the benches outside the courthouse. Run for the state legislature and pray like hell you get beat."
Even worse than those having no social conscience to serve are those who take advantage of the system for personal gain. Ask me if I could quickly recall Colorado lawyer-legislators who "crossed the line" and I would immediately think of two well-publicized cases. In one, a prominent lawyer-legislator sold his services for $5000 to write a bill on behalf of a "special interest", which bill would be considered in the up-coming 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 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 power to protect the interests of his private legal practice. At what point does a senator become just another lobbyist who also happens to vote? "
Lawyers have trade or professional associations and legislative-lawyers obviously have ties to those associations. In Colorado, four legislators (two majority, two minority) are appointed by legislative leadership to serve on the Colorado Bar Association (CBA) Board of Governors.
On the national level, the American Bar Association (ABA) must be doing something right, it having recently incurred the wrath of former Chief Justice Warren Burger for spending too much time and energy on "social issues" instead of improvement of the judiciary.
And if "social issues" wasn't bad enough, now the ABA has gone ahead and elected Barbara Cooper Ramo its first female president in the ABA's 116-year history. Mrs. Ramo is a former Denver native now practicing law in Albuquerque, N.M.
Former Chief Justice Burger would be more comfortable with the CBA. In the September issue of Colorado Lawyer magazine, the CBA lobbyist lists the achievements in the 1994 Colorado legislature, in part due to the CBA and CBA-section lobbying efforts.
There were changes in the Limited Liability statute, revisions in the laws governing Agency relationships, amending the Probate and Trust laws, and working against election of judicial nominating commission members and against Senate confirmation of appointments to the district and appellate court benches.
Spot any "social issues" ? There is one bright light on the state level. The CBA recently elected Frances Koncilja as the state bar president. And Ms. Koncijla promptly began her service with an article in the Colorado Lawyer August issue, criticizing the larger Colorado law firms for "over-billing" (a euphanism for asking clients for money they don't really owe.) She writes:
"What concerns me most about this issue is that we cannot lay the blame on those few sleazy lawyers whom we all know exist, but whom we all believe are rare. These aggressive billing practices have started at and been condoned by members of some of the biggest and most prestigious firms -- the guys and gals with nice suits and clean fingernails. They then can trickle down, because if everyone is doing it, one feels almost foolish in refusing to go along."
That's the sort of courageous stand that could restore CBA's credibility as a PROFESSIONAL (as opposed to a trade) association. Who knows? Under her guidance, the CBA might even lobby the legislature on behalf of "social issues" in l995.
Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator. He served six years on the CBA board of governors.
Copyright 2012 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel