Combine former Sen. David Holt’s swearing in as Oklahoma City mayor with Sen. John Sparks (D-Norman) and Sen. Anthony Sykes (R-Moore) terming out of the Legislature this year, and the Oklahoma State Senate could contain as few as three lawyers next session.
With six lawyers running for only four other Senate seats, the 48-member body could contain a maximum of seven attorneys in 2019.
Currently, Sen. Kay Floyd (D-OKC), Sen. Julie Daniels (R-Bartlesville) and Sen. Michael Brooks (D-OKC) are the only returning members with law degrees. The following Senate candidates also have experience practicing law:
- SD 16 — Mary B. Boren
- SD 30 — Evan Vincent, Jeffrey Cartmell, Erick W. Harris, Alan R. Leizear
- SD 38 — Brent Howard
Problem or not?
According to John M. Williams, executive director of the Oklahoma Bar Association, the relatively low number of lawyers in the Senate is cause for some concern.
“I think it’s pretty important to have folks who have been engaged in the practice of law involved in the process,” Williams said. “They have the experience of seeing the outcomes or potential outcomes.”
Floyd agreed, saying that, in her six years at the Capitol, the dwindling number of lawyers concerns her.
“Attorneys have training that some others don’t have, and I think that’s a great benefit to lawmakers,” she said.
Daniels, a non-practicing Juris Doctor, hesitated to express concern about the possibility of only three lawyers — a minority of membership — on the 10-seat Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The nature of the subject matter in the judiciary committee is very specialized, but you could say the same for agriculture, energy, public safety,” she said. “So, what this means is not that a judiciary committee won’t operate perfectly well with fewer lawyers, there’s always expertise to call on.”
In referencing that “expertise,” Daniels meant the legal minds who staff the Senate Judiciary Committee: Tracy Kersey, a legislative analyst and attorney, and Parker Wise, a Senate staff attorney.
Reading law: ‘Something you’re trained to do’
Floyd said legal experience can help legislators in the most obvious way.
“The biggest benefit of having a legal background is the fact that, when you read bills, it’s something you’re trained to do,” Floyd said.
Daniels has also found her law degree to be valuable.
“A law degree tends to make one more deliberate in their approach to issues,” she said. “It instills in you the skill to argue both sides of an issue, which can be very beneficial in tackling complicated or complex policy questions.”
Williams recalled the Legislature’s brief removal of the American rule in 2017 and said legal practitioners are the first to notice changes in state law.
“It would be amazing to all of us if someone would suggest writing a medical textbook without having any doctors involved with the process,” Williams said. “Having people who have an understanding of constitutional principles both at the federal and state (level) is extremely important. Those are organic documents. All things that are passed in the Legislature have to meet the benchmarks of those two documents.”
Why so few lawyers?
There are few incentives for a practicing lawyer to serve in the Oklahoma Legislature. First, the money: The Legislative Compensation Board recently cut the base pay of Oklahoma lawmakers by $3,379.20 down to $34,620.80. On average, Oklahoma lawyers earn $94,890, and while session usually runs only February through May, that time frame and other obligations limit a litigating lawmaker’s earning potential.
“A lawyer with a very busy practice will have to cut back that practice and cut back, most likely, their livelihood,” said Williams. “It’s people who either can afford to do that or people who choose to make the sacrifice.”
Williams also identified negative attitudes toward lawyers in office as a disincentive for lawyers to run.
“There’s been so much lawyer bashing, and folks who want to make some pretty unfounded statements against legal professionals in the process probably have driven some people away,” she said. “There’s this urban myth that the Legislature is somehow controlled by attorneys.”
Floyd echoed Williams’ sentiment.
“When I was campaigning six years ago for my very first race for the House, when people would ask me what I did and I’d say I’m an attorney, they would say, ‘Well we have enough attorneys up there,'” Floyd recalled. “I asked them, ‘How many attorneys do you think the Legislature has?’ And most of the time they would say, ‘Oh, over half,’ and I’d tell them what the real number was, and they had no idea.”
(Correction: This story was updated at 6:47 p.m. Thursday, May 22, to reflect Michael Brooks’ town of residence accurately. NonDoc regrets the error.)