Thursday, December 24, 2009

Is There A Lawyer in the House (or Senate)?

By Marc Korman.

Every year before the legislative session, the Maryland State Bar Association Legislative Preview lists the lawyers in the General Assembly. Let’s have a look.

Based on the Bar Association’s numbers, just 22% of the General Assembly is made up of attorneys. There are 10 in the State Senate, with half of that total coming from Montgomery County: Rona Kramer, Rob Garagiola, Brian Frosh, Jamie Raskin, and Mike Lenett. In the House of Delegates, there are 31 attorneys with 8 coming from Montgomery County: Kathleen Dumais, Brian Feldman, Bill Frick, Susan Lee, Luiz Simmons, Jeff Waldstreicher, Roger Manno, and Kirill Reznik. However, the Bar Association does not distinguish between attorneys who have practiced or those who just have a J.D.

According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Virginia’s total is much higher. 30% of Virginia legislators are attorneys. They are second among the percentage of lawyers in the state legislature only to Texas, where 33.3% of legislators are lawyers. Delaware has the lowest percentage of attorneys in their state legislature, just 3.2%. Nationwide, 15.2% of state legislators are attorneys according to NCSL (the data is from 2007 so might be slightly off due to intervening elections).

The percentage of lawyers in Congress is much higher, with 40% made up of attorneys according to the ABA. 55 Senators and 161 House Members are attorneys, including Senator Ben Cardin and all of Maryland’s Representatives except Roscoe Bartlett.

The low number of lawyers in the General Assembly is somewhat surprising. Lawyers are naturally associated with politicians in many minds. It is also a profession that, in many cases, allows the flexibility for a legislator to be in Annapolis three months of the year.

There are benefits to having lawyers in the legislature. One Maryland legislator/lawyer told me two reasons he thought having lawyers in the General Assembly was a good thing. First, he found lawyers better at honing in on the key, relevant issues in a bill and got less bogged down in extraneous issues. Second, he thought lawyers were more comfortable dealing with statutory language, making sure it is consistent with a bill’s intent, and avoiding unintended consequences of certain language.

This is not really surprising. Legislators deal with policy issues from across the spectrum, Thomas Jefferson said “there is no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” But the way in which they interact with those issues is through statutory language.

Despite the need for attorneys who can speak, read, and understand the language of the law, at least four subcommittees in the State Senate and thirteen in the House of Delegates do not have a single attorney as a member. The House Appropriations Committee appears to have only one attorney among its 26 members. 15 of the House attorneys, a bit less than half, are stacked on the Judiciary Committee, accounting for the vast majority of its 22 members. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has 4 attorneys among its 11 members.

That said, there are also great benefits to diversity in the legislature of all kinds, including professional. According to the NCSL data, 10.6% of Maryland’s legislators are business owners, 4.8% are in the medical field, and 3.7% are K-12 educators. 11.7% were listed as full-time legislators, though there may be some overlap between this number and the 4.8% identified as retired. Nationally, 16.4% were identified as full-time legislators, 11.7% as retired, 3.9% as K-12 educators, and 3.6% as medical professionals.

More attorneys might be useful for the General Assembly. But even without that, they could also be distributed a bit more evenly among the committees. Lawyers have skills that apply across the committees, not just those most closely aligned with their profession.

Disclosure: With any luck, I will be graduating law school in May and taking the Maryland Bar Exam in July.