This year’s State Bar of Texas president-elect race has energized lawyers, who turned out to vote in the highest percentages since 2009. Lawyers have also engaged in impassioned discussions of the campaign on Facebook and in mass emails.
Six attorneys say one factor causing the voter engagement is Steve Fischer. He gathered enough lawyer signatures to become the second petition candidate in State Bar history. Fischer is facing off against League City solo Trey Apffel in a runoff, with voting extending through May 23. [See, "Historic Runoff for State Bar President-Elect," Texas Lawyer, May 6, 2013, page 17.]
Three attorneys voting for Fischer say that lawyers are more involved because of his signature-gathering campaign and his message that he’ll represent solos and small-firm lawyers.
But three other lawyers say they’re involved because they think Fischer should not be State Bar president due to comments he allegedly posted on the Internet.
Fischer says one of his goals in running for election was to get more lawyers involved, but now he feels "disgusted."
"Sometimes I wonder why I did all this," he says. "It’s the dirtiest campaign we have ever seen."
In response to two telephone calls and an email seeking comment, Apffel writes in part in an email, "I do not think circulating or calling attention to remarks published openly by a candidate is a violation of the election rules as I understand them. It is important that voters receive and consider information about the candidates’ qualifications, track records, temperament and personal attributes in order to make an informed decision as to whom they want to represent them and the Bar."
Talmadge Nix, president of Nix | Poet in Sherman, says he’s not endorsing either candidate, but he’ll probably vote for Fischer because he’s the first candidate in 14 years who visited Sherman and asked for Nix’s vote.
Nix says that he thinks that the State Bar "pushed" for passage of the 2011 referendum proposing changes to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. He says it made solos and small-firm lawyers feel "disenfranchised." [See "Referendum Rejection; Bar's Outreach Efforts Fail to Make Disciplinary Rule Proposals Palatable," Texas Lawyer, February 28, 2011, page 1.]
"I think you’ve got a lot of disenfranchised lawyers, who, for the first time, have someone they can look at in the election and say, ‘This guy understands what I’m dealing with,’ " says Nix.
Plano solo TC Langford says it’s the first State Bar election she’s cared about. She thinks the State Bar has "functioned in the dark" for solos and small-firm lawyers who are "struggling to get by" and "fed up" with regulations, fees and dues.
"Those issues have been brought to light by Steve Fischer’s campaign," says Langford. "You’re tapping into a market of lawyers who have always been silent, because they have never had a reason to care before."
Hector Uribe, who sent a mass email to lawyers supporting Fischer, says he thinks Fischer reached out to "individuals who never felt wanted or embraced by the State Bar" and now "these new voters are very excited."
Bob Black, co-chairman of the State Bar Nominations and Elections Subcommittee, says he thinks the rules referendum created a perception that the State Bar doesn’t understand solos and small-firm lawyers. He says he thinks the tough economy also plays a role.
"These are very, very difficult times for the lawyers of the state of Texas, and my heart goes out to them, and I can ensure them the State Bar cares deeply," he says.
He notes there are free online sessions of continuing legal education, an effort to find options for affordable health insurance, and a program that helps attorneys with substance-abuse or mental-health issues.
Black adds that State Bar president Buck Files works in a small firm, President-Elect Lisa Tatum is a solo, and more than half of the State Bar board of directors members are solos or they work in small firms.
Fischer’s candidacy has also engaged voters on the other side of the ballot.
Houston solo Robert J. Kruckmeyer says he always votes in State Bar elections, but he’s never become involved in other ways. He says people like him are more involved, "to make sure that our Bar is not represented by a person that people think would be unacceptable."
During the runoff, Kruckemeyer sent a mass email of what he alleges were comments that Fischer wrote on Kruckemeyer’s Facebook profile in March 2011. Kruckemeyer says he mistakenly accepted a "friend" request from Fischer, thinking he was a former classmate with a similar name, but he defriended him after the alleged comments.
"I didn’t know him from Adam prior to him getting on my Facebook. For him to post those things — I thought, ‘This person is not an acceptable leader of the State Bar,’ " says Kruckemeyer.
When asked to respond to the allegation, Fischer says, "They can’t talk about issues. They take quotes out of context. It’s just the same negative, desperate campaigning."
Randy Sorrels, managing partner in Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend in Houston, sent a mass email listing nine comments that Fischer allegedly wrote on a newspaper website between April 2012 and February 2013.
"It’s a pattern of poor judgment," Sorrels says about the alleged comments.
He says he thinks Apffel "will serve as a better spokesperson for the Bar" during the 2015 legislative session, which he says will "set the tone" for the State Bar’s upcoming Sunset Advisory Commission review of the 2017 session.
Fischer says the alleged comments were sarcastic, and, "They were doctored. They were out of context. There were words left out."
"I apologize to anyone who took them really seriously," Fischer says.
He alleges that Sorrels is on Apffel’s campaign steering committee and that Sorrels’ email violates a State Bar election rule that says supporters must focus on the merits of a candidate.
But Sorrels says he thinks that Fischer’s alleged comments go "straight to the merits of his candidacy, his qualifications, and his conduct."
Regarding Fischer’s claim that the alleged comments are out of context, Sorrels says, "I’m not sure what context you can put them in that would make them appropriate."
He adds in an email that Fischer told him that the alleged comments were out of context, but, "He said nothing about them being altered. . . ."
Dallas attorney Christopher Walter wrote in a Feb. 18 email to Black and State Bar board chairman Frank Stevenson that he signed Fischer’s petition, but he wanted his name deleted from the petition.
The State Bar released the email to Texas Lawyer in a large group of documents as part of a March 26 Texas Public Information Act request pertaining to the State Bar president-elect election. [See, "Complaints Lodged in State Bar Race for President-Elect," Texas Lawyer, May 6, 2013, page 1.]
Walter wrote in the email that Fischer wrote a comment on Facebook, "that I find to be offensive, crude, and not worthy of someone who seeks to be president of the State Bar of Texas."
Walter didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.
Nix says he hopes that whoever wins the runoff, "pulls the bar together to be a more unified and more inclusive bar, so you don’t have as many people feeling disenfranchised."
Langford says, "Even if the outcome is not what I’d like to see in this election, I think it’s awesome there’s a group of people like me that care what the outcome of the election is, for the first time ever."
Uribe, a legislative consultant and former state senator, says Fischer visited courthouses statewide and used social media effectively.
"I think if anyone is really interested in being State Bar president in the future, they are going to have to use the new techniques to get to the voters. That’s exactly what Steve did," Uribe says.