History of the State Bar

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History of the State Bar

In the English Commonwealth tradition, it was a group of lawyers who decided who could and who couldn’t appear in court to argue on behalf of another party. In this tradition and with the Inns of Court in London, it was the lawyers who enforced professional standards, not the judges. Supervision, discipline, and self-regulation by professional associations with mandatory membership has a long history in the practice of law.

In the Southwest, lawyers were prohibited from practicing law in Mexico. After Mexican independence in 1821, the courts were considered to be places of “chicanery and delay.” There were no practicing attorneys in north Mexico; the courts were presided over by mayors. Then came the New Mexico Territory in 1850 and Arizona Territory in 1863.

william-howellThe requirements for admission to practice law were minimal in Arizona Territory. In 1864, Justice William T. Howell, author of the Howell Code, included these requirements: white males over the age of 21, no educational requirements, good moral character testimony, and payment of $20 fee. Coles Bashford was the first lawyer admitted to practice law in the Arizona Territorial Courts. A few years later, in 1871, the Territorial Supreme Court increased the standards for admission: examination in open court, two admitted attorneys to vouch for the applicant, and a statement of studies. By 1895, the voluntary Arizona Bar Association had 139 practicing attorneys. In 1901, the Territorial Legislature added admission standards (good knowledge, open court exam) and discipline (suspension or disbarment). In 1906, the bar incorporated. In 1912, the year of statehood, the Arizona Bar Association adopted the American Bar Association’s ethical rules.

At a time when the bar integration movement was raising the professional consciousness of lawyers, North Dakota became the first state to create a unified bar in 1921. In 1933, the Arizona legislature passed the State Bar Act creating an integrated, mandatory membership bar – the State Bar of Arizona. Understand that there was great opposition to this legislation. Lawyers against a mandatory bar argued for the individual’s right to practice law and that big city lawyers were trying to control rural Arizona law practice. But the legislation passed.

In 1973, the bar integrated under Supreme Court rules (now Rules 31 and 32). Joint oversight between the Supreme Court and the legislature ended in 1985. Since then, the State Bar has been under the sole oversight of the Supreme Court.

The State Bar of Arizona is an integrated state bar, or unified bar, meaning that to practice law in Arizona, membership is mandatory. Today in the U.S., the District of Columbia and 32 states (including Arizona) have unified state bars.

Which Brings Us to the Present

Since 2013, there have been no less than three bills seeking to eliminate the State Bar’s regulation of attorneys in Arizona. House Bill 2480 (2013) was sponsored by Representative Allen, but died in committee. Senate Bill 1414 (2013) was sponsored by Senator Murphy and also did not make it out of committee. House Bill 2629 (2015) made it out of committee, but failed to pass by one vote. This is what HB 2629, like its predecessors, would have accomplished:

12-119.06. Attorney licenses; rules

  1. The supreme court shall license attorneys for the practice of law in this state. The supreme court shall adopt rules to carry out the provisions of this section including:
  2. Minimum qualifications for licensure.
  3. Testing requirements.
  4. Requiring a background investigation before obtaining a license.
  5. Disciplining attorneys.
  6. Disbarring attorneys.
  7. An attorney shall not be required to be a member of any organization to become or remain a licensed attorney in this state.

HB 2629 did not pass, but there is no doubt that the same or similar language will be sponsored again in the near future.

Clearly, some are pushing to shift licensing of attorneys to the Supreme Court and to eliminate the mandatory State Bar. If HB 2629 had become law, then membership in a bar organization would not be required to become licensed or remain licensed to practice law in Arizona. As lawyers, we need to be the intervening force against de-unifying the State Bar. We need to make our opinions about eliminating a mandatory bar known to our legislators. Now.

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