King County Bar Celebrates 125 Years of History
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King County Bar Celebrates 125 Years of History

By Mark Fordham

 

In 1886, a group of Seattle lawyers decided to form a bar association in response to attorney involvement in a mob effort to get Chinese workers out of Seattle.

125 years ago, on February 7, 1886, a group of anti-Chinese Seattleites entered our Chinatown district, claiming to be health inspectors. They systematically went through the community "finding" Chinese-occupied buildings to be unsafe. Chinese-Americans were forced out these buildings and down to the harbor, where a ship was waiting. The "inspectors" then collected several hundred dollars from each so-called passenger to pay for their departure. Other Chinese were being forced to the railroad to be similarly run out of the city.

Seattle’s then mayor Henry Yesler, Sheriff (and future governor) John McGraw, famed local Judge Thomas Burke, and then U.S. district attorney (and later state Supreme Court Justice) William Henry White realized what was happening and served the ship’s captain with a writ of habeas corpus. They also warned the railroad superintendent that he would be charged with kidnapping if he aided the mob.

Sadly, many attorneys were organizers of this anti-Chinese action.

Leaders like Judge Burke saw the need for a local bar that, rather than be a social club, could discipline the attorneys who participated in the anti-Chinese action, as well as provide more just legal leadership in King County.

With that came the creation in 1886 of the King County Bar Association (pre-dating the creation of WSBA in 1888).

The very first resolution adopted by the bar in 1886 chastised those anti-Chinese attorneys as "pestilential agitators" who are "abandoning every useful calling" and "arraying one class against another" and by doing so are "the worst enemies of society." And over the past 125 years, the original motivation to uphold the rule of law in the pursuit of justice has not waned. That vision was that KCBA would be more than a professional society and more than a social club. We would harness our voice to be a champion of access to justice.

Our name changed a few times during these 125 years, from the King County Bar Association to the Seattle Bar Association to the Seattle-King County Bar Association to ultimately return to our roots in the 1990s as the King County Bar Association. Regardless of our name, the King County Bar has remained the largest and most active voluntary bar association in the Pacific Northwest.

In the early years, our work focused on the practice of law and support for the judiciary. We established the Seattle Law Library Association in 1895. We advocated for judicial salary increases before the state legislature in 1907. We saw 117 members give up their practices in 1919 to fight in World War I. And we passed a resolution urging that "class struggle" issues had no place in the court system of 1924.

Throughout this time KCBA served as the disciplinary bar for our community, regularly hearing disputes between attorneys and clients. All were dutifully recorded in handwritten journals until the 1920s, when KCBA adopted the use of typewriters. After the state bar became mandatory in the 1930s, it took on responsibility for those disciplinary actions.

Then in 1939 KCBA established the first Washington State Legal Aid Bureau with paid staff attorneys, with the Bureau's budget underwritten by KCBA members for almost twenty years until we incorporated it into a separate entity in 1958. But our involvement in civil legal aid didn't end there.

In the early 1960s we identified more pro bono attorneys to represent the indigent and conscientious objectors to the war in Vietnam. As that work grew, we opened special Legal Service Centers in Seattle, with a special focus on racial discrimination. Then in 1968 KCBA sponsored a pilot program to consider the need for a public defender office in our community; a year later the city of Seattle joined with the bar to create the Public Defender Corporation of Seattle.

In the 1970s we created our first neighborhood legal clinics, designed to give 30 minute consultations on a wide range of legal issues. From a single clinic on Capitol Hill in the 70s, to 37 clinics today, over 600 KCBA clinic volunteers assist thousands of our neighbors each year. We then followed with even more pro bono support services, organizing special programs in family, landlord-tenant, bankruptcy, and many more areas of law.

We created this array of special pro bono programs designed to complement the outstanding work done by our partners at Northwest Justice Project, Columbia Legal Services, and the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, to name just a few of our companion organizations. Our pro bono team also works very closely with our companion voluntary lawyer programs across the state.

The KCBA and our sister organization the King County Bar Foundation annually invest over $1 million, approximately one-third of the KCBA overall budget, into our pro bono support programs. As a side note, you may not realize how unique the King County Bar's underwriting of pro bono is. I am not aware of many, if any, other bar associations that put one-third of their entire resources into similar efforts. And, of course, we still have to provide the traditional membership services that voluntary bar members should fully expect and receive from KCBA.

Along with that $1 million financial commitment to pro bono support, we leverage about 1,500 volunteer attorneys each year. We simply could not deliver this volume of legal services without those volunteers! They provide about 34,000 hours to over 10,000 customers per year. At an assumed hourly billing rate of $250 per hour, that amounts to a contribution of roughly $8.5 Million per year in services.

While we've hit a few speed bumps over the bar's 125 year long commitment to social justice -- the Seattle bar voted to turn in to the Department of Justice certain enemy aliens and labor "agitators" back in 1919 during the first world war -- for the most part we can all be proud of the King County Bar's leadership on social justice and diversity.

KCBA spoke out on behalf of the accused during the McCarthy Era. We were representing conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. The 1960s saw us focusing our pro bono services to assist in matters of racial discrimination.

In 1969 we established our minority law student scholarship program under former KCBA and later WSBA president Bill Gates' leadership. These efforts weren't always easy to get started -- Bill remembers an all member meeting called by some attorneys seeking his resignation as bar president for proposing the scholarship fund.

But some forty years later the King County Bar has awarded over $1.6 million to over 600 minority law students -- some of whom are among our most prominent attorneys and jurists like Court of Appeals Judge Ron Cox. We are proud of our strong partnership with the law schools at the University of Washington and Seattle University.

We also encourage economically disadvantaged high school students, many of whom are persons of color, to pursue careers in law through our Future of the Law Institute. We run a fabulous annual event, the Martin Luther King luncheon, which this year hosted 675 guests, Julian Bond as our speaker. Rumor has it that the 2012 lunch will feature another legend in the civil rights movement, Andrew Young.

This commitment to diversity programming is coupled with a commitment to even more social justice initiatives.

The King County Bar's leadership on drug policy reform, once considered cutting edge and controversial, is now the mainstream opinion in our state. No less than the Seattle Times came out in favor of legalization this past February. I personally addressed a state legislative committee this year on the merits of a bill introduced by Representative Dickerson that would establish a taxed and regulated system for the distribution of marijuana. This is a system that the KCBA had suggested in a detailed report and recommendation adopted by our board as policy in 2005. We continue our work to ensure that drug policy focuses on education, prevention and treatment, rather than as a war that disparately impacts ethnic and economically disadvantaged communities.

We also continue to be a strong voice of support for our local courts, as was evidenced by our leadership in supporting last fall's King County ballot measure, Proposition 1. We take very responsibly our role in ranking judges for appointment and election to all levels of the bench where King County voters must make a choice. From organized candidate forums to monitoring local judicial elections for fairness, KCBA works hard to promote the integrity of our judiciary.

As the King County Bar Association celebrates its Quasquicentennial Year during 2011, it is with great pride that everyone at our local bar looks back on our history, and even more importantly, looks forward to our future and our continuing mission to promote justice, professionalism, and service to the local bar. To learn more about us and opportunities to become a KCBA member, as well as to find details about our June 22 gala anniversary celebration at the Sheraton Seattle, visit us online at www.kcba.org.

--Mark Fordham is president of the King County Bar Association and is an in-house counsel at Starbucks Coffee Company. He can be reached at mark.fordham@starbucks.com. The early history of KCBA was researched by KCBA member Marc Lampson and published in the book "From Profanity Hill: King County Bar Association Story."

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