Governance & Membership

February 2019 President's Message

Major Legislative Changes in Store for 2019

By Charles W. Chesnut

The Oklahoma Legislature convened on Feb. 4. This legislative session should be interesting. We have a new governor and lieutenant governor, 46 new members of the 101-member House of Representatives and 11 new members of the 48-member Senate.

During last year’s legislative session, 21 lawmakers practiced law. There were five in the Senate and 16 in the House of Representatives. For the 2019 session, our profession’s ranks dwindled to 14 (four in the Senate and 10 in the House). Some of the attorneys were termed out, others left to run for positions in the judicial branch or other elective positions, others didn’t win re-election and at least one just chose not to run again. The consensus on the causes for the erosion in the percentage of lawyers appears to be too little money and too much time.

Half a century ago, the notion lawyers wrote most of the laws was pretty accurate. That began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. Legislative sessions became longer, making it difficult for attorneys to keep up with their practices while they served in office. Legislative pay fell further and further behind the amount lawyers could earn on the private side. Lawyers gained permission to advertise for clients, challenging the traditional idea that serving in office was the best way to promote one’s name and attract new business.

Also, it became common to campaign for fewer lawyers in the Legislature. The argument normally advanced was that lawyers somehow or another had too much influence in affecting the legislative process. Actually, having lawyers in the Legislature is a plus. Legal training provides a better understanding of how passing or changing a law can affect people. It affords an opportunity to do some careful tweaking of language that has the major advantage of fixing unanticipated consequences. Legal training gives a lawyer more confidence in expressing oneself on controversial issues. Finally, the most important benefit – it gives one the opportunity to shape the state’s laws.

With respect to new incoming legislators, I’ve always thought being a new legislator would be like trying to drink from a fire hose. With all the other things going on, there is no way a new legislator, and maybe even an experienced one, could begin to keep up with all the bills introduced each session. (Last year according to LegiScan, 4,572 new pieces of legislation were introduced.) In addition, they may have little to no knowledge about many of the bills introduced. The OBA is trying to do its part in impacting that in a positive way.

One of the jewels of the Oklahoma Bar Association is the 300-member Legislative Monitoring Committee chaired by Angela Ailles Bahm. The OBA held the OBA Reading Day on Feb. 2. At Reading Day, attorneys presented about 90 bills in various areas of the law. Following the presentation of the bills, Administrator of the Courts Director Jari Askins presented a brief talk on the funding of the judiciary. At noon, during a pizza lunch, members of the Legislature held a panel discussion on what they thought would be important during the 2019 session. The free event provided attorneys with two hours of MCLE credit.

This year we invited all of our state legislators to come to Legislative Reading Day. We thought it was a great opportunity for them, as well as our OBA members, to obtain information on the legal and practical effect of some of the proposed legislation. I believe it would be helpful for the OBA to become known as a resource from which legislators could get an explanation on the effects of bills. We could make that happen.

I think it is a primary responsibility of our bar association to serve our members. By helping our members become more aware of pending legislation and its potential impact, it helps us become better informed both as citizens and lawyers.

If you have any ideas for your bar association that would help improve its service to its membership, send me an email. I’d be glad to hear from you.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 90 pg. 4 (February 2019)