It's interesting to see the disparate viewpoints as to whether the radical fall-off in the number of lawyer-legislators (which dropped below 20% for probably the first time in California's history last session in terms of Members actually licensed to practice law) is detrimental to the process - and particularly whether more lawyer-legislators would improve legislative sensitivity to the importance of maintaining adequate funding for the judicial branch. For my part, I know it couldn't hurt.
Fewer Law Degrees Grace Sacramento Walls
But the impact of a mostly nonlawyer Legislature is unclear.
By Emily Green
When attorney John Montevideo meets with legislators to drum up support for bills affecting the state's courts system, he sometimes packs flowcharts. The visual aids allow him to walk some of the greener lawmakers through the legal process, to explain the difference between, say, "beyond a reasonable doubt" and "clear and convincing."
Montevideo, president of Sacramento-based plaintiffs' group Consumer Attorneys of California, found himself giving those presentations a lot this year.
The reason: Far fewer state lawmakers hold a law degree now than anyone can remember, a slow but steady turn from what was once a traditional path to the Capitol.
Of the 120 legislators in Sacramento in 1971, 56 were lawyers, or nearly 47 percent.
This year, just 24 lawmakers have law degrees, or 20 percent, according to numbers compiled by Larry Doyle, the State Bar's former Chief Legislative Counsel. Of those, 21 are Democrats and three are Republicans - one of whom is currently on military duty in Afghanistan. That breakdown reflects a wider party-affiliation disparity than currently exists in either house overall.
This shrinking proportion of lawmakers with legal training undoubtedly has changed the way business is conducted in Sacramento, with legislative staff and even lobbyists filling different roles.
But observers disagree on whether the effect is worrisome or inconsequential. Some Capitol staffers and lobbyists who are lawyers said the nonlawyer majority views bills regarding the courts system as less important. They also said more lawyers can mean more money for the judiciary, which was in short supply this year as requests for courts funding fell on deaf ears.
But others, including former Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, also a lawyer, said the impact is overstated. He said "practitioners feel better" if there are other lawyers in office.
The shift became most noticeable after the implementation of term limits in 1990, observers said. That year, 30 percent of the Senate and Assembly were lawyers, according to the data compiled by Doyle. By 2007, that had dipped to 22.5 percent.
Under the term limits, legislators can serve a maximum of six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.
With legislative seats opening up on a regular basis, it was believed that practicing attorneys would run for office as a "career capper," said Drew Liebert, chief counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee who has worked at the Capitol since 1984.
Another reason could be pay. Legislators in nonleadership positions earn $95,291 a year, while the standard rate for new associates at major law firms is $160,000 a year, not including bonuses.
Combine those factors with polls showing widespread dissatisfaction with the Legislature and "that makes it for everyone a less attractive place to work, certainly for lawyers who are skilled," Liebert said.
As the number of attorney legislators has shrunk, so has the number of legislative aides with law degrees because lawyers want more job security than term limits allow, according to Liebert. There were "at least twice as many staff members" who were lawyers before term limits as now, he said.
In 2010, former Chief Justice Ronald M. George worked closely with lawyer and Assembly Judiciary Chairman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, to negotiate a deal allowing the branch to avoid extensive budget cuts. Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, a lawyer who then served as chairwoman of the Assembly budget committee, also helped.
Attorneys have "naturally been the judicial system's greatest advocates and protectors," Liebert said.
Lawyer legislators "make a huge difference in being able to articulate the needs of the branch," Child said.
Not so, says Isenberg, who co-authored one of the most important pieces of recent legislation affecting the courts - the transfer of funding for trial courts from the counties to the state.
"If there were more lawyers in the legislature, would the judiciary's budget fare better? Well, I'm sorry, but that ain't true," Isenberg said. "There is not a shred of evidence for that."
Isenberg also rejected the idea that lawyers help legal process related legislation get passed - save for one type. "You might need lawyers to be interested in really boring legal stuff," he said.
But Montevideo, CAOC president, attributed the stalling of one of his organization's priority bills - legislation to lower the standard of proof in elder-abuse cases - to the lack of lawyers on legislative committees.
Nonlawyer legislators can't fully comprehend the importance of lowering the standards of proof "because they haven't practiced it, they don't understand the significance of failing to change it," he said.
Dickinson, the Sacramento assemblyman, echoed that sentiment. He said he had a particularly difficult time explaining one of his bills - also sponsored by the CAOC - to fellow lawmakers. The bill, which ultimately stalled, sought to keep motions to compel arbitration out of the appellate courts in an effort to speed up judicial review.
Mike Belote, lobbyist for the California Defense Counsel and California Judges Association, doesn't buy that nonlawyers are harder to educate about bills.
"Being a lawyer doesn't always mean they would understand the bills any better, to be honest," Belote said. "I'm a lawyer, and I have a heck of a time reading some of these bills."