Bill would study revoking N.H. Bar charter

Every lawyer in the state pays dues, like it or not, to the New Hampshire Bar Association, chartered by the Legislature in 1873 as a group with delegated oversight of the profession.

Every year or two a proposed bill seeks to break up what critics see as a monopoly. Earlier this session, the House voted 269-29 to kill House Bill 541, which aimed to do away with the association outright and seize its assets for the general fund. But on March 9 it did pass HB 1768, which creates a commission to study the merits of revoking the association’s 133-year-old charter, a charter that proponents say was initially granted by the Legislature and can be taken away by the Legislature.
Rep. Robert Rowe, R-Amherst, a retired lawyer, is co-sponsoring the bill. He testified Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee that a monopoly “can be inefficient. My philosophy is that any profession should be as professional as possible.”

Attorney John MacIntosh. Who lobbies for the bar, said it doesn’t object to a study committee.

“But the Supreme Court has been clear on a number of occasions that the makeup of the bar association is an issue it reserves for itself,” he said.

Rep. Robert Meade, R-Mont Vernon, prime sponsor, said the bill grew out of a study committee last summer after the legislation was retained from the 2005 session.

“The bar is a monopolistic private association not subject to the Right to Know Law,” he said. “Attorneys have to be appointed by its board of directors.”

The battle over the bar was strong enough in 2002 for the Legislature to pass HB 465, requiring the bar to hold a referendum among members to see whether they wanted the association to go out of business. The high court allowed the vote, sealed the ballots, then released them. The tally was 1,379-486 against breaking up the bar, with 32 percent of members returning ballots.

The membership has voted on the issue two other times. It favored the unified bar by 231-188 in 1968, when the Supreme Court set up a three-year trial of the mandatory arrangement. In 1971 members said yes again, by 199-150.

During the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice David Brock, the bar association became a football in the political rugby match between lawmakers and judges over the separation of powers. In a speech to the Salem Bar Association May 31, 2001, Supreme Court Justice John Broderick called on members of the bar to speak up for the embattled courts because it’s awkward for judges to defend themselves outside the bench.

“When the rules of politics are applied to the judiciary,” Broderick said in a talk still posted on the Supreme Court Web site, “the impact is doubly fierce because we cannot fight back. And so I fear our silence is taken as assent to our critics. That would be wrong. I urge you to come forward and speak up because you, as lawyers, know this system better than anyone and you should be in the forefront of this discussion.”

The bar association irked lawmakers three years later, when it lobbied against a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2004 ballot to strip the high court of its rulemaking powers. Voters rejected the measure. -= CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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