By Kyle Sciuchetti
In the April/May issue of Bar News, I wrote of “A Home of Our Own,” and the response has been fascinating: Members have told me they like the idea of purchasing a building the WSBA would own, or lease from the Washington State Bar Foundation, just as it was envisioned nearly 70 years ago. In my article, I suggested a permanent space might offer flexible and innovative solutions for members, such as conference rooms and office hoteling to support legal professionals who are choosing in growing numbers to work from home on a regular basis. I also mentioned a House of Delegates.
The idea of creating a House of Delegates for the WSBA has intrigued me for years. Other bar associations and professional organizations have them, variously titled Council or Assembly of Delegates, but always with the same purpose: to help the governing body consider and implement important policy decisions with a more informed perspective. The Washington State Medical Association (WSMA) is governed by a Board of Trustees that carries out the mandates and policies of its 200-member House of Delegates. For example, the WSMA House of Delegates comprises elected delegates from each county medical society and qualified state specialty societies, as well as members of the WSMA board of trustees. There is one resident delegate, one student delegate, and one young physician delegate. Each county society has one delegate for every 50 active WSMA members, and each medical specialty society is entitled to elect or appoint one delegate and one alternate under certain circumstances.
When I began my year as WSBA president, my plan had been to gather our Board of Governors with the Oregon Board of Governors and the Idaho Board of Commissioners to discuss legal issues that confront the legal profession throughout the Pacific Northwest. I had in mind mandatory malpractice insurance, the issue of compelled bifurcation of the bar, the limited license legal technician initiative, and the APR Rule 6 law clerk program. While the pandemic has made that more difficult, I am still hopeful we can meet soon and discuss policymaking among the three states and learn from each other’s successes and failures. One of those successes is Oregon’s House of Delegates.
Oregon’s model began nearly 30 years ago when the Board of Governors submitted the idea to a vote of the membership in 1992. A favorable vote of the members was followed by passage of legislation in 1995 to create the House of Delegates, which now consists of approximately 240 elected delegates and ex-officio delegates who come from around the state, including:
• Nineteen members of the Board of Governors;
• The chair or designated alternate of each state bar section (41 members);
• The president of each county bar association (24 members);
• Delegates elected from each of the seven in-state regions and from the region consisting of all areas outside the state of Oregon (146 members); and
• One public member from each in-state region appointed by the Board of Governors (eight members).
By a majority vote, the Oregon House of Delegates is authorized to direct the Board of Governors to take action or modify or rescind a decision of the Board of Governors. The Board is bound by decisions of the House of Delegates pursuant to state law. Historically, the House of Delegates has been involved in deciding disciplinary rule changes, bar positions on major legislative and policy issues, member resolutions, and fee increases. The president of the Oregon State Bar presides over the meeting with the help of a parliamentarian. The president may call a special meeting of the House or the delegates may call their own meeting if the requisite number of delegates makes such a request.
Integrated and voluntary bar associations across the country are using similar delegate models to include and empower member voices to make important policy decisions:
• The Louisiana State Bar Association’s House of Delegates, created in 1957, is currently deciding whether to create a committee to investigate group health insurance for its members and to adopt a uniform electronic filing platform for all Louisiana state courts.
• The Nebraska State Bar Association’s House of Delegates recently approved important changes to that state’s fee arbitration rules and section bylaws, and it voted not to adopt a policy related to volunteer lawyers appearing as amicus curiae in landlord/tenant disputes.
• The Indiana State Bar Association’s House of Delegates helped formulate a discussion between its membership and the courts to elicit and improve on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, including remote and virtual processes that will continue into the future.
• In January, the Tennessee Bar Association’s House of Delegates considered proposals brought by the Nashville Bar Association and CLE Commission to modify rules to support more diversity topics and a one-hour-per-year diversity training requirement.
• The South Carolina Bar’s House of Delegates in May 2019 encouraged the South Carolina Supreme Court to expand the number of states with which out-of-state bar members can meet the continuing legal education requirements for South Carolina by meeting the requirements for the states where they reside and practice law. The delegates also approved changes to the Rules of Professional Conduct relating to the special responsibilities of a prosecutor that impose a duty on prosecutors to disclose evidence discovered post-conviction that indicates that the person who was convicted is innocent, undertake an investigation, and seek to remedy the conviction.
Would our own state Bar benefit from the creation of a House of Delegates? It’s an intriguing possibility, with two separate considerations for our members: the concept itself and the logistics. As for the latter, space is our primary challenge at the moment. Our current office space configuration, location, and parking facilities would make it difficult, if not impossible, to regularly host hundreds of members and the staff necessary to facilitate such a meeting. While virtual meetings are an option, they come with their own challenges when it comes to voting and orderly debate; and I think we lose something when we only gather by electronic means. In Oregon, the Bar planned for the use of a large conference room to host such gatherings when it designed the Oregon State Bar Conference Center, south of Portland in Tigard.
Assuming the WSBA can overcome its own logistics challenge with a similar solution, which would be a more hospitable solution for an assembly of legal professionals from across the state, the questions then become clear: Would the WSBA benefit from the creation of a House of Delegates that would assist the Board of Governors in the policymaking and governance of the WSBA? Should the WSBA look for a home that would allow the House of Delegates to gather and deliberate the important issues of the day? Could a House of Delegates provide the WSBA with input, ideas, policies, procedures, and oversight from the four corners of the state and expand our state Bar to be more inclusive of our many points of view and experiences?
It’s an intriguing idea and something I believe the WSBA should consider.