Denver Bar Association
February 2004
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An Apology From Your Union President: Denver Bar Association as trade union?

by Joe Dischinger
DBA President

As I write this article, the 2004 state legislative session has not yet begun, but we have a hint of what to expect. In an article in the Rocky Mountain News ("GOP Targets Judges," Jan. 3, 2004, p. 2A), our Senate President, John Andrews, expressed frustration at our wayward judiciary, and announced it was time to "remind" the courts of what their job is. Presumably, it is not the courts’ job, in his view, to strike down legislation. Among the ideas he put forward as a way of bringing the courts back into line are term limits for judges and Senate confirmation of judicial appointments. He also believes the judicial nominating commissions "tend to be bar association-dominated," and he thinks "it’s fair to take a look at essentially whether the lawyers’ trade union, the bar association, ought to have as much influence in that as they do."

He’s a legislator—it is easy to understand why Senator Andrews would not appreciate the value of an independent judiciary as a separate and equal branch of government, whose job, among other things, is to serve as a check and balance on the other two branches. He’s the leader of the party in power—it is easy to understand why he would like more political influence over judges. He’s a non-lawyer—he may not understand the historic and constitutional role given to courts, and why the courts’ political independence is essential to the protection of rights that may be distasteful to whichever party is currently in power.

Of course, the great beauty of the system of checks and balances that our ancestors created is that it recognizes and takes advantage of the human nature of the individuals who rise to power. It assumes the separate branches will push and reach for more power. The human urge of the members of each branch to defend their own role in government is what motivates them to keep an eye on the other branches. We are used to seeing politicians of both parties act in their own self-interest and the interest of their parties; we do not expect them to act solely with reference to the Platonic ideal of greater good.

Still, it is always distressing to see legislators act without accurate information about the systems they seek to change. The judicial nominating commissions are not "bar association-dominated." Under our state Constitution, every nominating commission has more non-lawyers than lawyers as members, each of whom has an equal vote—Colo. Const. art. VI, sec. 24. (The Constitution also limits the representation of any one party on each nominating commission.) Second, the bar associations have absolutely no input into the nominating process. The names of the applicants are not disclosed to anyone until the nominating commissions have already made their selections, and then only the names of the three nominees who are presented to the Governor are made public.

Also, I have never thought of the bar association as "the lawyers’ trade union," although I sometimes wish we had one. Given that many of us are making very modest incomes, and have no job security (if we are employed at all), if the bar association is a trade union, I have been failing miserably as your president.

Through bar association programs, our members contribute over $100,000 in cash each year to Metro Volunteer Lawyers, and thousands of hours of free services to indigent clients. As your union leader, I have negotiated the tidy sum of zero as compensation for these efforts. Bar association volunteers, led by Pat Kenney, are running a mediation program in the Denver County Court that is helping to resolve disputes inexpensively and reduce court backlogs. The attorneys who provide these mediation services work for free. They have not expressed dissatisfaction with this arrangement, but still I am worried for my unpaid union job. The Legal Services Committee sponsors several monthly free clinics for the public, so people can learn how to represent themselves in divorce, bankruptcy and other legal proceedings. Not only do the lawyers teach these clinics for free, they are teaching potential clients how not to need their services. What was your union leadership thinking?

The Young Lawyers Division of the Denver Bar Association has, for many years, sponsored Law Suit Day, in which lawyers and law firm staff donate professional clothing to help low-income and unemployed community members dress-to-impress for job interviews. The YLD also sponsors the Winter Festival, raising money and collecting toys for foster children, and raises money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The Bench-Bar Committee is working to draft and revise informational brochures for the public about the legal system and their rights, and is working to improve the experience of jurors who are called to serve in Denver. These lawyers are volunteering their time.

Bar association volunteers have contributed literally thousands of hours to create and run the Denver Warm Welcome Court Child Care Center, a free service for families who have business at the courts. Bar volunteers have gone into the schools, teaching civics, coaching mock trial teams, helping students learn to read. The bar association has generated dozens of educational brochures for the general public, and made them available on the CBA website, relating to such subjects as trusts and estates, divorce, small claims, buying a house, etc. What did the lawyers earn for all of this time, and the benefit of their education and experience? Nothing.

The Community Action Network Committee conducts annual toothbrush drives for the Kids in Need of Dentistry program, food drives for the Food Bank of the Rockies, the Lawyers Have a Heart Race to raise money for the American Heart Association, school supply drives for underprivileged children, and raises money for Work Options for Women, an organization that teaches low income women and women on welfare job skills and helps them to find jobs. All for free.

As a professional group, we do more than our fair share for the community. The work of the bar association is to provide charitable services, including free or low-cost representation to those who need it, to make sure that lawyers have the professional tools (including continuing education and other support) to provide the best legal services possible, and to promote collegiality among our members and civility in the community. The bar association is a volunteer organization, not a trade union. One other service we can provide, as the legislature begins its assault on the independence of the judiciary, is to make sure our legislators act on the basis of correct information.

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