Rita Sheffey of the bar's Civil Legal Services Task Force said she thought the proposal would have passed if there had been a vote.
Rita Sheffey of the bar’s Civil Legal Services Task Force said she thought the proposal would have passed if there had been a vote. (John Disney/Daily Report)

For the second time in three months, the State Bar of Georgia’s Board of Governors delayed a vote on a professional rules change that would require lawyers to establish client trust funds exclusively with banks that offer competitive interest rates.

The proposal now is slated to come up for a vote during the Board of Governors’ spring meeting in March at Lake Oconee. It is part of a package of fund-raising measures recommended by a bar task force to fill a $1.8 million gap in the budgets of Georgia Legal Services and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

“I am disappointed that we did not get to a vote today,” said Rita Sheffey, the vice chairwoman of the task force and secretary of the bar. “I am confident we had the support.”

The bar’s Civil Legal Services Task Force, a 14-member panel of judges and lawyers appointed last year by bar President Charles “Buck” Ruffin, was poised to ask the Board of Governors for a vote on Saturday. The task force met in Atlanta Thursday afternoon to go over the proposal, which had been tabled during the bar’s fall meeting in November at Jekyll Island. At that time, members of the Board of Governors said they had not had enough time to review the proposal.

This time the delay came from the Georgia Bar Foundation, which collects and disburses funds gleaned from interest on lawyer trust accounts, also known as IOLTA.

Sheffey, a partner at Hunton and Williams, said Bar Foundation officials contacted task force representatives Friday night to ask for more time to “take a closer look at certain language in the proposed revisions.”

Statesboro lawyer Jimmy Franklin, a trustee and former president of the Georgia Bar Foundation, said the requested delay wasn’t due to any particular problem with the substance of the proposal. Instead, it was a matter of timing.

“The task force’s latest report came out during the holidays, and since our foundation ultimately would have to implement the rules change, we just felt like it would be beneficial if we could have more time to review them and make suggestions,” Franklin said Saturday after the Board of Governors meeting.

Franklin also dismissed any concern that a delay in action on IOLTA would hurt the state’s two main legal aid agencies.

“Staff analysis indicated a delay won’t have any negative, short-term effect on legal aid funding,” he said.

If the Board of Governors approves the IOLTA changes in March, then they will be published in the Bar Journal. If there are no comments requiring substantive changes, the bar will file a motion with the state Supreme Court for final approval and authorization.

Controversy on Brashier’s successor

Ruffin received pushback when he announced a committee of bar members he appointed to search for a new executive director.

Ruffin teared up talking about the moment he learned that longtime Executive Director Cliff Brashier had died on Dec. 20.

“The last thing in the world I wanted to do was lead the bar in an effort to select his successor,” Ruffin said.

Ruffin appointed a 12-member committee that will work with a private search firm to cull and vet candidates for the post. In addition to Ruffin, the committee will include Past-President Robin Frazer Clark, President-Elect Patrice Perkins-Hooker, Young Lawyers Division President Darrell Sutton, YLD Past-President John Pannell and YLD President-Elect Sharri Edenfield. Ruffin also appointed six past presidents whose practices are located in different parts of the state: Paul Kilpatrick Jr. of Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison & Norwood in Columbus; Benjamin Easterlin IV of King & Spalding in Atlanta; Jim Durham of Durham & Rizzi in Brunswick; Robert Ingram of Moore, Ingram, Johnson & Steele in Marietta; Jeff Bramlett of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore in Atlanta; and Bryan Cavan of Miller & Martin in Atlanta.

Ruffin said he chose people who had worked with Brashier during different stages of his 20-year career with the bar.

“Until you get to be president-elect of the State Bar of Georgia, you do not understand what responsibilities the executive director has,” said Ruffin.

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Seth Kirschenbaum was the first to voice concern about the racial and gender make-up of Ruffin’s committee. His comments sparked a nearly hourlong discussion.

“I have no problem with any individual member,” said Kirschenbaum, a partner at Davis, Zipperman, Kirschenbaum & Lotito. “I just don’t think this committee is diverse enough for the this job. Of the 12 people on the committee, nine are white men. There are three women, and there’s only one African-American.

“I understand time is of the essence and this is an important job that needs to be done, but I also think the committee should reflect the diversity of the bar,” Kirschenbaum added.

Ruffin bristled. “As I indicated, who is most experienced in working with the staff that is consideration No. 1 for me,” he said, reiterating that former bar presidents know the most about the job’s requirements.

Ruffin then pointed out that the Board of Governors, a diverse body of more than 150 members, would have the final say on whomever is hired. “This body will answer all the issues you have raised,” said Ruffin.

Several African-American members of the board echoed Kirschenbaum, including Dwight Thomas, Allegra Lawrence-Hardy and Anita Wallace Thomas.

“I made a mental note there was very little minority representation,” said Anita Wallace Thomas, a partner with Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough. Diverse membership “offers different perspectives and experiences, and most of the time, leads to a better result.”

Perkins-Hooker, who is the sole African-American on the search committee, tried to assure the board that she was comfortable speaking out against the selection process if she felt it was unfair to minorities. Likewise, Edenfield, a lawyer from Statesboro, declared she was not “a shrinking violet.”

Donna Barwick said the committee should include bar staffers, to which Ruffin responded that staff would be consulted during the search process.

Ruffin ended discussion on the search committee by reminding the board that his appointments were not up for a vote and therefore would remain as announced.

New officers and JQC member

The Board of Governors approved the appointment of Franklin, a partner at Franklin, Taulbee, Rushing, Snipes & Marsh, to the Judicial Qualifications Commission—this time without the acrimony that marked the board’s first attempt at a vote in November.

The board, during its fall meeting, had tabled Ruffin’s nomination of Graham Thorpe, an assistant U.S. attorney in Macon, following a heated back-and-forth between Ruffin and opposing board members. The opposition seemed centered on Thorpe’s association with the public corruption prosecution of former Alapaha Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Brooks Blitch III.

Several attendees of the fall meeting later said they were taken aback at the tenor of the meeting. Ruffin, who nominated Franklin after agreeing to drop Thorpe, joked Saturday when presenting the consent agenda that he had brought a helmet and body armor, just in case.