Facing allegations that they violated the Texas Public Information Act, on Aug. 16 State Bar of Texas officials released to a member of the public the e-mail addresses of nearly 63,000 lawyers.
Joe Crews, who represents Marni von Wilpert in her suit against the State Bar and its executive director Michelle Hunter, says the list of lawyers’ e-mail addresses clearly is subject to the Public Information Act.
“I don’t understand why it was an issue,” says Crews, owner of the Crews Law Firm in Austin.
On Aug. 14, von Wilpert filed von Wilpert v. State Bar of Texas, et al. in a state district court in Travis County. As noted in the original petition, von Wilpert seeks a declaratory judgment that the defendants violated the Public Information Act and injunctive relief to require release of the information. But the State Bar voluntarily released the e-mail addresses.
Despite the suit, one of the lawyers whose e-mail addresses was released to von Wilpert does not believe the Bar should have handed over the list so easily.
“I don’t think the Bar should have agreed to it without consulting with the attorneys [Bar membership] and waiting for a judge to order them to do it,” says Colorado City solo Pat Barber.
Barber says, “I don’t put my e-mail address on my letterhead, and I don’t give it to judges usually. I don’t want to be responsible for answering e-mail in addition to the phone and snail mail.”
Don Jones, the State Bar’s legal counsel, says after a lot of discussion and research Bar officials thought that releasing the list of e-mail addresses was the right thing to do. “We certainly did not do it lightly,” Jones says.
Jones also says it would be expensive for the Bar to try a suit on the issue.
Del Rio criminal-defense solo Michael J. Bagley says, “I don’t mind having my e-mail address released. It’s a business e-mail.”
Bagley says if it ever gets to the point that someone is harassing him via e-mail, he will change his e-mail address.
The dispute over releasing lawyers’ e-mail addresses arose after von Wilpert sent a June 10 letter to Hunter asking the State Bar to provide her the e-mail addresses of each Texas-licensed lawyer for whom the Bar has that information.
Crews says von Wilpert, who worked this summer as a law clerk at the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin, requested the e-mail addresses because she wants to express her concerns to lawyers about the proposed amendments to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Von Wilpert is a student at Fordham University School of Law in New York City.
However, Hunter responded in a June 25 letter that “e-mail addresses are not subject to disclosure under Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code.”
Enacted by the Texas Legislature in 2007, §552.1126 provides that the e-mail address of a person licensed to practice law in this state may not be disclosed to the public if the person to whom the information relates notifies the State Bar in writing or electronically that he chooses to restrict public access to that information.
Jones says once lawyers do that, “it’s valid until they rescind it.”
The State Bar has notified lawyers about that option only twice since §552.1126 took effect on Sept. 1, 2007. Jones says the State Bar sent a blast e-mail to the membership about the opportunity to keep their e-mail addresses confidential in August 2007 and did not send another notice until Aug. 13. Von Wilpert filed her suit the next day.
Kelley Jones King, the State Bar’s deputy executive director, says the Bar didn’t send another notice after August 2007 because the Bar’s prior administration had interpreted Texas Government Code §552.137 as protecting lawyers’ e-mail addresses. Under §552.137, an e-mail address of a member of the public that is provided for the purpose of communicating with a governmental body is confidential and not subject to disclosure.
Hunter replaced John P. Edwards as executive director on Oct. 3, 2008. Edwards could not be located for comment.
King says that information about the option lawyers have for restricting public access to the e-mail addresses will be included in the September Texas Bar Journal, along with a form for exercising that option. The form also is available on the State Bar’s website, she says.
“We just want to make sure we’re moving forward and taking care of business for our members,” King says.
Still an unresolved matter, however, is the suit von Wilpert filed. Crews says von Wilpert wants to review the disk containing the lawyers’ names and e-mail addresses that the State Bar sent her before deciding what to do about the suit.