Public image of legal profession can be changed from within, bar president says

David Yates May 7, 2007, 10:00am

Martha Dickie, president of the State Bar of Texas, was keynote speaker at the 2007 JCBA Law Day.

Martha Dickie, State Bar of Texas president, will humbly tell you she represents 80,000 lawyers "who have 80,000 different opinions," a daunting scenario which could derail any leader's goals.

However, when the scrappy University of Texas grad spoke to the hundreds of lawyers gathered at the Jefferson County Courthouse for the Annual Law Day Ceremony on May 4, Dickie seemed confident she could unify the diverse group and shift their focus from legal quarrels to the lack of public respect currently plaguing the law profession.

"In this country, children can more readily identify the Three Stooges than the three branches of government," Dickie said. "Democracy is going to be at risk on the judicial level."

Public perception about the legal profession has become so bad that one state gave voters the opportunity to create a citizen's oversight committee to keep an eye on judges.

The Jail 4 Judges movement recently got its Judicial Accountability Initiative law onto the ballot in South Dakota. Residents voted down the amendment to which would have created a committee that could hear complaints against judges alleged of misconduct which could result in jail time, Dickie said.

The group's Web site said the Judicial Accountability Initiative Law is a single-issue national grassroots organization designed to "end the rampant and pervasive judicial corruption in the legal system of the U.S."

"J.A.I.L. recognizes this can be achieved only through making the judicial branch of government answerable and accountable to an entity other than itself," the Web site said. "At this time it isn't, resulting in the judiciary's arbitrary abuse of the doctrine of judicial immunity, leaving the people without recourse when their inherent rights are violated by judges."

Dickie also railed against Texas Senate Bill No. 1204, the latest proposed overhaul to the civil justice system.

According to a Texas Appellate Law Web Site, the bill focuses on reforming the state's judicial structure and practice at the trial-court level, primarily by converting Texas's statutory county courts into more than 40 new district courts. Another major change would be the creation of a "complex case" judicial panel that would operate much like the multidistrict litigation panels created in 2003.

"I worry that's not the way it would end up," Dickie said, expressing a fear that Texas Justices of the Peace would be handling high dollar cases ($10,000). "Most J.P.s don't have law degrees."

If passed, the changes would take effect Jan. 1, 2011, with most of these offices standing for election in 2010, the Texas Appellate Law Web site said.

"I don't want to hear when this legislative session is over, 'Why didn't you tell us about this,'" Dickie said. "We need to reform the judicial branch thoughtfully and with attorney/judge input."

She went on to say the judicial branch is not treated as an equal, but is rather run as a department under the jurisdiction of the executive and legislative branches.

"In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed Law Day to strengthen our great heritage of liberty, justice, and equality under the law," said an American Bar Web site.

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