Sunset
(David Sucsy / iStockphoto)

State Bar of Texas members would no longer vote on bar membership fee changes under a recommendation submitted to the Legislature by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission.

As recommended by the commission, authority to change State Bar membership fees and other fees would move to the Texas Supreme Court, which already reviews and must approve the bar’s budget.

The recommendation is expected to be considered by the Legislature as part of the sunset review of the State Bar, a process each state agency must undergo at least once every 12 years.

“I think it would be part of any initial draft of the bill,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat on the Sunset Advisory Commission.

Watson, a partner in Husch Blackwell in Austin, said the original recommendation from the commission staff would have put the Supreme Court in charge of everything. The commission voted in August 2016 to reject a proposal to repeal the rules referendum process that allows Texas attorneys to vote on changes to attorney disciplinary rules.

According to Watson, the arguments that Bar leaders presented to the commission in favor of having the Supreme Court decide on fee changes included that such an arrangement would result in greater efficiency, provide better protection of the public because dues help pay for various duties to protect the public and allow for a better reflection of the budget.

State Bar President Frank Stevenson, a Dallas partner in Locke Lord, noted in a written statement, “The State Bar’s leadership and staff take great pride in the fact that State Bar dues have not increased in 26 years; no such increase is being contemplated.”

However, the proposal to transfer authority over bar fee changes to the Supreme Court has drawn mixed reviews.

Broadus Spivey, a former State Bar president and partner in Spivey & Grigg in Austin, called it a “bad idea” to make such a change.

“There’s a genuine concern by some in the bar that it’s a power grab by the court,” said Spivey, who served as the State Bar’s president in 2001-2002.

Jim Parsons, principal in the Jim Parsons Law Firm in Palestine and the State Bar president in 1990-1991, said the Supreme Court has the right under its inherent authority to regulate the bar.

“They’ve already got the authority, statute or no,” Parsons said. “It doesn’t bother me.”

Austin solo practitioner Joe Longley, who is seeking signatures to be on the State Bar’s ballot for the 2017 president-elect race, said he opposes any move to eliminate lawyers’ right to vote on fee changes as well as on the disciplinary rules.

“I am for the right to vote—period,” Longley said.

But Laura Sharp, who has been recommended by the State Bar Nominations and Elections Committee as a nominee for president-elect, said she is “not as angsted” about the proposal to have the Supreme Court decide about fee changes as she was about the recommendation to eliminate rules referenda.

“I’d rather it be at the Supreme Court rather than a lot of other places,” said Sharp, a partner in The Sharp Firm in Austin.

Chad Baruch, a shareholder in Johnston Tobey Baruch in Dallas, also has been recommended as a president-elect nominee. Baruch said he has not taken a position on transferring authority over fee changes to the court.

“It is a far lesser concern to me than preserving the right to vote on rule changes,” he said.

Watson said the State Bar sunset bill is being drafted but that he does not know who will carry the measure.

“I don’t know when assignments will be made with regards to who will be carrying bills,” he said.