I don't know whether weblog readers in Texas vote in State Bar elections - but if you don't, you need to make a big exception this year and get out and vote. Here's how and why::
How to Vote
First the how - Attorneys who are active and in good standing are eligible to vote regardless of whether they voted in the election that concluded on April 30. Today, ballots will be distributed electronically and via mail and voting will take place until May 23 at 5:00 p.m. CST. Or, you can vote now by clicking here.
Why Your Vote Matters
Now the why: the bar president we elect this month will be president during the legislative session prior to when the Bar is set for sunset review - which is when we have to make the case to the Texas Legislature to continue to let lawyers govern ourselves via an elected board of directors and an independent bar, rather than creating a state agency headed by a gubernatorial appointee and reporting to the Legislature. To preserve the level of autonomy we currently have, we have to show ourselves to be responsible, mature custodians of our profession and of the public interest that we serve. This election could show that we are all of these things - or none of these things.
The State Bar has a committee (which I served on in 2008 when I was director for the northeast Texas counties of district 1) that interviews candidates for president-elect, picks two, and then those two run in a general election. Virtually every year the state's lawyers can't lose because the two lawyers running have survived an intense selection process that generates two candidates with long distinguished records of service to the bar and to their communities. What is left is two people that know the issues facing the bar, who have the respect of their colleagues, and who their colleagues trust to have the judgment to speak out on behalf of our profession. The Bar also expects - and gets - a dogged advocate for our profession who can work as part of a team with Bar staff, the Bar board and the larger legal and political community to advocate for our profession when called upon.
The State Bar president's job
That last is important because speaking out appropriately and effectively is largely what a State Bar president does. They cannot hire and fire Bar staff, set Bar policy, or administer or even oversee what the Bar does on a day to day basis. They appoint members of committees and support the many things the Bar does, and when called on they represent us before the Texas Supreme Court and the Legislature. They have the respect of their peers not because of the office they hold, but because of the kind of lawyer they have shown themselves to be. They lead because they have served.
This year's election
This year is different. Of course, the Bar interviewed and eventually submitted two experienced Bar leaders, Trey Apffel of League City and Larry Hicks of El Paso to the members. Both are distinguished members of the Bar with long records of service to their community. Either would be a Bar president we could be proud of, and the Bar membership has selected Trey as one of the candidates for the runoff this month.
What makes this year different is that there was a third candidate, Steve Fischer of Rockport , who utilized the process whereby a candidate could collect enough signatures to be placed on the ballot, and who is now in a runoff with Trey. And it is that runoff that I want to write about today.
I have known Steve for a little over a year now, since he has served on the Texas Bar Journal board of editors that I chair, and I have appreciated his input and his desire try to make the Bar better. He is sincere about wanting to do what he believes are positive things for the Bar. But the reason I am taking the unprecedented (for me) step of recommending in the strongest possible terms that you vote for Trey and not Steve is that it is my strong belief that we do not - we cannot - have Steve representing the lawyers of Texas as president of the State Bar, especially during a legislative session that will lay the groundwork for our next fight for survival as an institutional bar.
The reason why I feel as strongly about this as I do is not just that in my experience Steve has shown an inability to learn how the Bar works and how to promote the changes he believes are necessary. Many, if not most of us, are not as skilled at working within organizations as we would like. And after all, since Bar presidents do not exercise command or control over the organization, and no president can make the changes Steve has indicated he wants to make, his inability to make them if he were elected is really is not a concern to me. Bar presidents learn - in fact they all already know - that the State Bar's elected board of directors exercises the real authority within the organization, and it is they that will decide what changes are made, and when. A president may persuade or work effectively within the organization to promote desired change, but, candidly, they are in office too short a time, and are typically too busy with their selected project to play a substantial role in the governing of the organization.
The Importance of Judgment in What a Bar Presidents Says
The reason I am concerned is that Steve has shown a recurring lack of judgment at the one thing a state bar has to do, and do right - communicate effectively on behalf of the Bar. Not all of us are good front men for an organization, but it goes beyond that. A State Bar president has to be able to effectively convey the Bar's message to policymakers at the Court and the Legislature, not to mention the larger public. Steve is not only not on the same page as most of the bar leadership - his judgment in what he says publicly makes placing him in a role representing the Bar I believe could be seriously damaging to the future of the organized bar in Texas.
Want specifics? In recent years Steve has been a prolific poster on the website of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. He is vocal in his opinions, which is certainly his right, but the judgment he has shown raises serious questions about whether this is someone we want representing our profession. Here are some examples (a complete list can be found here) that I think will get across why I have the concerns I do:
- February 21, 2013: "Give it up liberals- Its not just Mexicans who may be illiterate look at your own posts. Hilarious. At least Mexicans are literate in one language."
- October 14, 2012: "People dumb enough to believe in organized religion will get scammed all the time- scammers need dumb targets."
- June 28, 2012: "Catholics do have somewhat lower educational attainment than several other religions, but for people to eat this stuff up is outrageous."
Want more? Just go to the link above and scroll down Steve's posts. Do we really want this as the face of the organized Bar going into Sunset? Would you trust an organization led by people who make statements like this to govern itself? News flash: lawyers are not popular - and there are all too many people that would like to eliminate our ability to govern ourselves, and will seize on the stated beliefs of the Bar's leader regarding religious or ethnic groups to show why it's time to do exactly that. We should not destroy the good will that generations of bar leaders have built with our state's elected leaders, and we cannot give the Legislature an excuse to head down the path of eliminating the bar's ability to govern itself. It would be bad not just for us as lawyers, but for our clients and for the public.
Again, I like Steve and I appreciate his input, his hard work, and his motivation - which is to try to make the State Bar better. He is sincere in his beliefs, and loves the profession no less than any of us. But as all lawyers know - good intentions are not enough. Hard work, even coupled with skill is often still not enough. What this job needs above all else is good judgment in knowing what to say when you open your mouth, because a bar president does not have the luxury of staying silent. We elect them to speak for us. And we expect them to speak well.
Trey Apffel is the leader the Bar needs as we head into Sunset review. I urge you to support him this month with your vote, and to urge as many of your colleagues as you can to join you.