Whether lawyers should be required to join and pay dues to the State Bar of Arizona is a fair subject for debate, certainly.
But if anyone's confused about whether a bill now before the State Senate that guts the State Bar would be a good idea, just look at who loves the bill: lawyers who have been stripped of their bar licenses.
House Bill 2221 already has passed the state House of Representatives and is worrying the State Bar enough to oppose it actively.
Rick DeBruhl, State Bar spokesman, alerted New Times about the bill after reading our Thursday article about a failed lawsuit filed by Lisa Aubuchon and Rachel Alexander, two former acolytes of disgraced former Maricopa County Andrew Thomas who lost their law licenses.
Last year, Aubuchon and Alexander testified in support of a bill that essentially would have eliminated the State Bar, making it a voluntary association of lawyers with no regulatory function or mandatory fee. Because of their involvement — and, presumably, the support of Thomas — opponents dubbed it the "Andrew Thomas Revenge Bill."
This year, the two have sat in on legislative hearings for the latest version of the Revenge Bill.
Their support of the legislation alone should raise legitimate concern about its worth.
The Bar's primary mission is to regulate attorneys, and it collects about $300 to $500 a year in mandatory fees for that purpose. It has about 17,500 active members and 5,000 others, including judges and retired, inactive members. But critics, who include some Republican lawmakers, argue that the Bar has exceeded its statutory purpose and engages in lobbying for liberal causes.
The new bill forbids the State Bar from collecting mandatory fees. Instead, the state Supreme Court would have to collect the fees. The Supreme Court could run a regulatory system itself or pass the money back to the State Bar. But either way, the mandatory fees could be used only for specific purposes mandated by the bill, such as maintaining records on attorneys and carrying out disciplinary measures when needed.
Aubuchon and Alexander apparently would enjoy seeing the State Bar hobbled.
Alexander, Aubuchon, and Thomas collectively owe a $101,294 debt to the state as reimbursement for the expenses of a high-profile disciplinary hearing against them in 2012. Thomas and Aubuchon were disbarred; Alexander received a six-month suspension, but she can't get license back until — among other things — the entire $101,294 is paid.
Evidence in the discipline case — which started when the State Bar chose to investigate the former prosecutors — demonstrated that the two women, as deputy county attorneys under Thomas in 2009, helped Thomas harass and intimidate his political opponents with a bogus RICO lawsuit.
The case included numerous examples of wrongdoing by Thomas and his two go-to women. For instance, Aubuchon — on Thomas' behalf — tried to get Maricopa County Sheriff Office detectives to write a search warrant to go through the offices of all five Maricopa County Supervisors. They told the detectives, who refused, to "fluff" up a search warrant and use "creative writing."
Alexander took up the RICO case for Thomas when Aubuchon proved to have a conflict of interest. Although Alexander knew that no investigative file existed to back up the RICO/racketeering lawsuit, because no investigation had occurred, she continued to work on the bogus case regardless.
But Alexander, Aubuchon, and Thomas viewed the entire affair as a problem with the justice system and State Bar.
Alexander, who once called the State Bar investigators "cockroaches" in a post on her conservative blog site, has continued to rail against what she perceives as injustice, and in April, started a GoFundMe site that explains some of her grievances.
During one of last year's hearings, Aubuchon testified that the State Bar should be eliminated because it puts on "show trials" that have cost taxpayers up to $500,000. The high-profile disciplinary proceedings against Aubuchon, Alexander, and Thomas cost the state Supreme Court $554,000, but Disciplinary Judge William O'Neil ruled that the three have to pay only $101,294 of the cost.
Alexander, meanwhile, testified that the Bar takes official, political stances on certain issues. For example, she told a House committee, it takes the position that the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual) community "should have nondiscriminatory laws apply to them, too ... Other people might not want their dues to pay for that."
Alexander and Aubuchon attended a February 10 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee about the bill but didn't speak. The proposed statute has other supporters, though, including two Republican lawmakers who sit in the committee — the bill's sponsor, Anthony Kern of Peoria, and committee chair Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert.
After explaining the bill's features, Kern — a private investigator and official at his church — told the panel: "We just feel that the State Bar is kind of abusing [its] authority amongst the attorneys and amongst the public."
Farnsworth, an attorney, said lawyers "don't like the Bar. They don't like the compulsory nature of the Bar. I feel like they don't really think they have a voice."
Representative Randall Friese (D-Tucson) said he didn't think the bill was constitutional because, in requiring the state Supreme Court to do things, it violates the separation of powers doctrine.
Two members of the Family Civil Liberties Union, a New York-based judiciary watchdog organization, also testified in support of the bill. Martin Lynch, a local representative of the group, later told New Times he believes the bill would "rein in some of the power" of the State Bar, which he calls a "private club of attorneys charged with [regulating] attorneys."
DeBruhl acknowledged that the Bar's opposition to the bill could be considered an example of the Bar's taking a political stance that some of its members don't like. But the bill would hamper many of the Bar's essential functions, he claims, such as helping new lawyers and providing ethical guidance.
The bill allows the Bar to continue to collect voluntary fees for such purposes.
Mark Harrison, a former State Bar president, says the Arizona Bar has worked well as a "mandatory" regulatory body and that he'd be disappointed if the bill passed.
And if the bill's provisions had been law at the time of the disciplinary hearings of Thomas, Aubuchon, and Alexander, he said, it would have made no difference in the outcome of their cases.
While that may be true, it's likely not the reason that Aubuchon and Alexander support it.
For them, the proposal to strip power from the State Bar, which they believe wronged them, seems all about payback.