Mark Dubois
Mark Dubois ()

I went to a meeting of the National Council of Bar Presidents the other day. The plenary session was on the issue of whether bar associations should embrace or run from controversial social issues. It was time well spent. Every time I think I am the first to fall into deep, uncharted and roiling waters, I learn that everyone in the bar leadership business is in the same boat.

At the meeting, the moderator asked the attendees (a packed ballroom) to raise their hand if their bar had ever been asked to take a position on a controversial matter of social or political concern. A sea of hands went up. He then asked the reciprocal question—”anyone not had such an experience?” One hand went up. Those of us from Connecticut began to laugh. I guess we didn’t invent the problem. It’s just our turn to feel the pain.

In case you have been living on an island or have completely turned off any contact with the CBA, you are aware that after a vote of our House of Delegates to endorse a brief from the Brady Center in support of Connecticut’s law banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a petition drive has now sent the matter to referendum.

The purpose of this column is not to advocate a vote one way or the other, though I am sorely tempted. Gun violence in our cities and smaller communities is out of control. I experienced it myself a few years ago when I left the West Indian parade in Hartford just before seven people were shot. I also was at the Middletown courthouse when a disgruntled litigant shot and killed his wife, seriously wounded her attorney and committed suicide. Two near misses are enough. Since Newtown, there have been too many shootings, at schools, in malls, on streets, in stores and wherever else people meet in the expectation of safety to count.

The bigger, though more parochial, question is what position bar associations should take when their members or others come to them and ask that they lend their names and institutional gravitas to a “hot button” issue. At the meeting, speakers presented both sides of the question. Some bars restrict their activism to issues of judicial independence, the operation of the courts, and matters concerning the practice of law. Others embrace the opportunity to debate and speak on issues which, though they might be divisive and have strong proponents on both sides, are ones where the public expects lawyers to be leaders.

The issue is complicated in states where all lawyers must be members of the state bar. In those venues, members can ask that the portion of their dues that support unpopular legislative initiatives be refunded. On one state, objecting lawyers got back something like $4.57. As I listened to the discussion, I felt like the hapless selectman at a meeting I attended when I was a young lawyer who, after listening to a heated and protracted debate, announced that he agreed with everyone. There are good arguments on both sides.

If bar associations want to remain the “big tent” for all practicing lawyers, they might well avoid any controversial social issues. On the other hand, many feel passionately that bar associations should be tools for social change and should speak out when proposed legislation or other action (or inaction) threatens the well-being of the community. From the e-mails I have gotten from CBA members on the present issue, I can say that Connecticut lawyers fall on both sides of the question.

The members of the Connecticut Bar Association will have the opportunity to vote on the issue of joining an amicus brief on a Second Amendment question. The outcome of that vote may speak to where CBA members are on the issue of gun control, or it may speak to the bigger issue of becoming involved in any controversial issues. As guns are such a fraught discussion, I don’t think we should read too much into whichever way the thing is decided.

For the nearly 40 years I have been a CBA member, I have wondered whether it is (or should be) a “bottom-up” organization or one that sets policy “top down.” I have also wondered whether bar leadership, which tends to be homogenous, might be out of step with its members which are both more diverse and much younger. Perhaps the biggest “take away” from the Shew discussion is that we should start talking about why we have a bar association and what we expect it to do for us.