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Missouri Bar discusses legislative priorities

Missouri Bar discusses legislative priorities

Incoming Generally Assembly contains only 24 lawyer-lawmakers

November 20th, 2016 by Bob Watson in Missouri News

One of the biggest Missouri Bar projects in recent years — rewriting the state's criminal code — is set to go into effect Jan. 1, after lawmakers passed it in 2014.

The statewide organization representing lawyers helped write that re-organization of the existing criminal law — but isn't tackling that large of a project in the near future, new President Dana Tippin Cutler, of Kansas City, said Friday.

"We have some things we are working on, like our strategic plan," Cutler told the News Tribune. "We are updating our technology and getting a plan and budget together to do that.

"We are always doing civic education about the Court Plan and other issues that impact that."

Cutler said Missourians should remember lawyers' "goal is to seek justice and fairness. With our courts, we want them to be fair and impartial.

"We want to keep politics out of it as much as we can so that when you appear before a judge, you know that he or she is there to rule in an appropriate and fair way, seeking justice for the individual litigants."

She acknowledged different people may define justice differently, based on their involvement in a case.

However, from a legal standpoint, she said, "I use this example when we're meeting with citizens — if you are a Cardinals fan and you walk in to court and the judge had on a Cubs hat (or a Royals fan and the judge is wearing a Yankees hat) — even if he ruled fairly, you wonder what was his or her motivation.

"So when people walk into our courts, they need to know and be confident — and we (lawyers) are confident — that our judges come in and they're there to hear the facts and apply the law in an appropriate manner."

Missouri courts rule based on laws passed by the General Assembly.

And there's an ongoing discussion about how many or few lawmakers should have a legal background as they help make the state's laws.

After the state Senate lost three lawyers and the House gained five in this month's elections, the Legislature still has one of its smallest numbers of lawyer-lawmakers in history.

Cutler said she's not concerned by that statistic.

"We recognize that the citizens of our state are very capable of picking appropriate leadership, and we honor that," Cutler said. "We try to support it by being available to help give two sides to their issues that they are developing."

Bar research shows the Senate's two attorneys marks the lowest number of lawyer-lawmakers in the chamber's history since 1891, while the highest number of lawyers among the 34 senators was 21, in 1901 and 1911.

The Senate's two lawyers in the 2017-18 General Assembly are Scott Sifton, D-Affton, and Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis — but Onder also is a doctor and practices in that area rather than as an attorney.

Mid-Missouri lawmakers among the House's 22 lawyers are Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, and Caleb Jones, R-Columbia. Both are serving their fourth and last terms because of voter-approved term limits.

The smallest number of attorneys the House ever had was 13, in the 1988 and '89 sessions. The largest number of attorneys in the House was 45, in 1901, when the House only had 140 seats, not the current 163 set in 1963.

The coming session's combined number of lawyers is 24, or 12 percent of the total General Assembly — the second-lowest total percentage in the Legislature's history since 1891.

Lawyers also were only 12 percent of the total Legislature in 1985-86, 1988, 1989 and 2005.

However, the lowest total percentage was in the 2015-16 General Assembly, with only 21 lawyers among 197 lawmakers — or 11 percent.

"We are looking forward to a robust legislative season and being support to our legislators as they develop legislation — being a touchstone for them," Cutler said Friday.

"We're just going to be about the business of helping lawyers help the citizens of our state."

The Bar's executive board was told Friday, now the elections are over, the organization is looking for sponsors for its four priority bills in 2017.

Originally approved at the Bar's September meeting, those measures are more technical in nature than headline-making but still would impact the way people handle health and financial decisions:

Designated Health Care Decision Maker Act

The proposed law would place in state statutes a person's right to authorize someone to make their health care decisions. Similar proposals were discussed but not passed by lawmakers in 2014 and 2015.

Trust Protector Act

The proposal would modify existing state law regarding trusts and the designation of a "trust protector" who is given specific powers over a trust by the trust instrument.

Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

The proposal would provide fiduciaries — a trustee — with the legal authority to manage digital assets and electronic communications in the same way the law already allows them to manage tangible assets and financial accounts.

Qualified Spousal Trusts

The proposal would clarify the way a qualified spousal trust can be revoked and bring state law in line with the federal bankruptcy code following a 2007 decision by the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.