STATE BAR BOARD UPDATE
Task Forces Present Reports on Grievances, Diversity, and COVID-19 Issues
Written by Lowell Brown
ABOVE: Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann administers the oath
of office to new directors, President-elect Laura Gibson, and Board
Chair Santos Vargas. Photos by Lowell Brown
The State Bar of Texas Board of Directors received task force reports on major issues facing the legal profession, including grievances, diversity and inclusion, and lawyer needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Directors met June 16-17 in Austin for their first in-person meetings in 15 months, after the pandemic forced the board to conduct all business by videoconference. The meetings offered a chance to honor departing directors, welcome newly elected and appointed members, and hear final reports or status updates from task forces and workgroups formed throughout the bar year.
The report from 2020-2021 State Bar President Larry McDougal’s Task Force on Public Protection, Grievance Review, and the Client Security Fund received the most discussion during the June 16 meeting. The task force report included recommendations on issues such as due process in investigative hearings and assistance to grieved attorneys, but much of the board’s discussion centered on the recommendation not to require sworn complaints.
Currently, the attorney grievance form requires complainants to swear the information is true and correct. Some directors said the bar should do more to protect lawyers from frivolous complaints by requiring complainants to attest to their grievances under penalty of perjury.
El Paso District Director Steve Fischer urged those who supported sworn grievances while running for office to “hold true to what they campaigned on and … what the lawyers of this state want.”
The task force found the current language on the grievance form sufficient to deter most false complaints. Houston lawyer Michael Fields, a former judge who chaired the task force, warned that requiring sworn grievances could have a chilling effect on the filing of legitimate complaints and could even jeopardize Texas lawyers’ self-governance.
“Chilling the public’s ability to make complaints about lawyers will be the death knell for this bar,” Fields said. “It will send us to a place that we do not want to be—administrative hearings where nonlawyers are judging our conduct. That is just not something that is palatable to me personally and to the majority of the members of this task force.”
Following the discussion, directors voted to refer the task force report to the board’s Discipline & Client Attorney Assistance Program, or DCAAP, Committee for review and possible recommendations.
The board also received written reports from the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force and the Justice in Leadership Workgroup, which were created in 2020 to recommend action items on various diversity and inclusion issues facing the bar. At the request of 2021-2022 State Bar President Sylvia Borunda Firth, the board voted to extend the diversity task force through December 31.
Directors also heard a report from Granbury attorney Cindy Tisdale, co-chair of the Workgroup on Texas Lawyer Needs Arising from the 2020 Pandemic and 2021 Winter Storm. The workgroup conducted a member needs survey, collected disaster resources for attorneys, and created a video to raise awareness of the resources, Tisdale said. The video and resources can be viewed at texasbar.com/attorneyresources.
Houston attorney Laura Gibson was sworn in as State Bar president-elect during the board’s June 17 meeting. Santos Vargas, of San Antonio, succeeded John Charles “Charlie” Ginn, of McKinney, as chair of the board. Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann administered the oath of office to new officers and directors.
McDougal presented presidential citations to State Bar directors August Watkins Harris III, of Austin; Wendy-Adele Humphrey, of Lubbock; and James Wester, of Amarillo; attorneys Betty Blackwell, of Austin, and Richard Elliott, of Dallas; Pastor Richie Butler and Charlene Edwards, of Project Unity in Dallas; and Committee on Disciplinary Rules and Referenda chair M. Lewis Kinard and members Claude Ducloux, Vincent Johnson, Timothy D. Belton, Amy Bresnen, Rick Hagen, Justice Dennise Garcia, W. Carl Jordan, and Karen J. Nicholson.
Ginn, the outgoing board chair, presented the Public Member Award to director Alan E. Sims, of Cedar Hill; the Outstanding Third-Year Director Award to Emily Miller, of Brownwood, and Stephen J. Naylor, of Fort Worth; and the Michael J. Crowley Award to Robert D. Crain, of Dallas.
In other action, the board:
Heard an update from the Presidential Task Force on Criminal Court Proceedings and voted to extend the task force through December 31.
Extended the Workgroup on the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator through December 31.
Approved the Committee Review Task Force recommendation to change the name of the Disability Issues Committee to the Disability Rights and Issues Committee.
Approved updates to the Board Policy Manual, including the addition of a State Bar Board of Directors’ Code of Conduct and changes to policies related to the selection of president-elect candidates, the announcement of candidates, and the scheduling of candidate forums.
Opposed a proposed annual meeting resolution presented by Joe K. Longley.
Approved updated performance measures based on the Strategic Plan for 2021-2026.
Passed resolutions commemorating the 175th anniversary of the federal courts in Texas; honoring the late State Bar past presidents Lloyd Lochridge and Broadus Spivey; and commending the work of the Texas Supreme Court’s Remote Proceedings Task Force in addressing the issue of remote hearings.