Attorneys are termed out in Sacramento
By Larry Doyle
Chief Legislative Counsel
Already at an all-time low, the number of lawyers in the California Legislature
appears to be headed towards new depths following next November’s election.
Although it is far too early to predict results with any certainty, all early
signs suggest that attorneys will make up somewhere between 13 percent and
19 percent of the Legislature that convenes in December of 2006. It would take
an extremely unlikely lawyer sweep of all races in which they are running to
even maintain the lowest-in-California-history status quo of 22.5 percent.
To put these figures into perspective, 35 years ago lawyers comprised nearly
half (47 percent) of the Legislature. Since then, the numbers have fallen steadily,
to 38 percent in 1981, and 25 percent a decade later.
Why should this be a concern? In addition to an intimate understanding of
the demands and ethical obligations facing practicing lawyers, which are often
the subject of legislation, current lawyer-lawmakers believe that attorneys’ training
and experience in applying the law makes them particularly valuable to the
“While many professions should be represented in the Legislature’s
membership, the declining number of experienced lawyers in the legislature
is not a harbinger of good things to come,” says Sen. Joe Dunn of Santa
Ana, one of the lawyer-legislators scheduled to depart next November. “The
talents a lawyer brings to the lawmaking profession are unrivaled by any other
profession. Put simply, the Legislature is in need of more experienced lawyers.”
Dunn’s view is echoed by Assembly Judiciary Committee Vice-chair Tom
Harman of Huntington Beach, who notes that “attorneys are educated and
trained to be ‘problem solvers.’” Harman adds that it is
particularly valuable to have lawyer-legislators as members of the two house
judiciary committees, since such members “not only know and understand
the legislation that is before the committee, but often times have applied
the very law that is under consideration by the committee in a real life situation.”
The decline in lawyer-legislators anticipated in the November 2006 election
will be most pronounced in the state Senate, which will lose seven of its current
crop of 11 attorneys to term limits. With only two attorneys currently rated
likely winners in their races to join the Senate for the 2007-08 session — one
other locked in a primary battle currently too close to call, and a fourth
awaiting the results of a special Congressional election before he throws his
hat in the ring — the best that can be expected is that the November
2006 election will result in a net loss of three lawyer-Senators.
This follows on the heels of a 2004 election that also reduced the ranks of
lawyer-Senators by three, meaning that in three short years, the percentage
of attorney members of California’s upper house will have been at best
nearly halved, from 35 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2007, and at worst
will drop as low as 15 percent.
Numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, however, for the departing
lawyer-Senators will be taking with them a wealth of legislative experience
far beyond those numbers. The least experienced of the group is eight-year
veteran Dunn, whose many years as a practicing trial attorney and dedication
to the justice system have inspired him to become the Legislature’s most
visible champion of the state’s court system.
The remaining departees from the Senate are 12-year veterans Kevin Murray
and Chuck Poochigian, 14-year veterans Debra Bowen, Martha Escutia and Bill
Morrow, and the current dean of legislative lawyers, 20-year veteran Senator
Collectively, that represents a loss of 94 years of legislative legal expertise.
Added to the whopping 114 years of such expertise lost in 2004 with the departure
of long-time lawyer-lawmakers John Burton, Ross Johnson, Byron Sher and John
Vasconcellos, the impact is staggering.
On the addition side of the ledger, Assembly Member Tom Umberg and former
Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Darrell Steinberg are currently odds-on
favorites to replace Dunn and the departing Deborah Ortiz (a law school graduate
but non-lawyer), respectively. But even assuming that former Assembly Judiciary
Committee Chair Ellen Corbett is successful in her primary bid to win the Senate
seat being vacated by Liz Figueroa and Tom Harman succeeds to the seat currently
held by Congressional aspirant John Campbell, the net loss in legislative/
legal expertise in the Senate since 2004 will still exceed 170 years.
As always, the situation in the Assembly is much more fluid and unpredictable.
The number of lawyer-lawmakers in the lower house was expanded recently from
15 to 16 (20 percent) by the special election victory of Ted Lieu in the 53rd
Assembly District. Term limits will bring to a close the Assembly careers of
six of the remaining 15 lawyer-lawmakers, including Harman, Umberg, 14-year
legislative veteran Ray Haynes, Joe Canciamilla, Dario Frommer and Juan Vargas.
However, at this very early stage in the election cycle, and given the large
number of candidates running for virtually every open Assembly seat, it is
impossible to guess how many — if any — of the attorneys currently
running in 10 of those races will win.
The fading impact of lawyer-legislators in California goes beyond a mere reduction
in numbers, however. It also can be seen in the influence those lawyer-lawmakers
exercise through leadership posts. Since 1973, either the Speaker of the Assembly
or the President pro Tem of the Senate — and often both — has been
an attorney. That streak was finally broken in December 2004, when Fabien Nuñez
was elected Speaker of the Assembly and Don Perata became President pro Tem
of the Senate.
Nor is the decline limited to the Legislature. Of all California’s constitutional
officers, currently only Attorney General Bill Lockyer is an attorney — the
first time since at least 1971 when the profession has been so poorly represented.
In fact, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected in 2003, it marked only the
second time in 65 years that a non-lawyer had served as governor — a
streak virtually certain to be extended at least until 2010, since none of
the three leading declared candidates for governor in 2006 is an attorney.
Neither of California’s U.S. Senators is an attorney, and the number
of attorneys in California’s Congressional delegation has been falling
as well — as, for that matter, has the number of attorneys in Congress.