February 2014 Bar Bulletin
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February 2014 Bar Bulletin

Public Policy: A Driving Force

 

If there is one thing that drew me to become a member of the KCBA, it was the Drug Policy Project. Up until then, I assumed KCBA was an organization for attorneys in private practice; an organization that was not relevant to the work I was doing or the issues that mattered to my clients. The Drug Policy Project was the first of numerous KCBA projects that proved me wrong. It was remarkable to me that there was an organization, of lawyers no less, willing to speak out publicly and take a strong position on an issue where there were strong opinions to the contrary.

While the Drug Policy Project may now seem like a "no-brainer," it was controversial in many respects when it was first proposed. However, it was a policy position that was easily tied to the KCBA mission statement: It had a direct impact on the fair administration of justice in our legal system. KCBA became not only a local and state leader in drug policy reform, but also a national leader.

Since the Drug Policy Project was introduced, KCBA has taken policy positions on a variety of issues: same-sex marriage; court funding; life without the possibility of parole for juveniles; and abolishing the death penalty. Three years ago, under the leadership of then-KCBA President Joe Bringman, KCBA created its Public Policy Committee, chaired by Andy Maron. Andy has done an outstanding job of convening a vibrant, hard-working and thoughtful group of members to tackle policy issues and questions relevant to the legal community. This group has defined criteria to evaluate and prioritize policy issues, and created workgroups to dive into issues, and makes it a point to hear from critics of issues under consideration as well as proponents.

Over the years, KCBA's policy positions have met with praise. They also have met with some harsh criticism from members who disagree with a particular KCBA policy position. Members have threatened to resign - and some have - over stated KCBA policy positions.

As the Board is being asked to take a position on universal background checks for the purchase of any firearm (Initiative 594), I thought it might be helpful to explain the process in which the Board engages in determining whether to take a position on a matter of public import. The research, time and thoughtful debate that go into the adoption of a policy statement or resolution are extensive.

How does a policy issue get before the Board? Most often, it is at the request of the Public Policy Committee. The Board will schedule time at a monthly meeting to discuss the proposed policy request. Members of the Committee will present the issue, what they have done to fully vet the issue, make a recommendation and provide supporting documentation. Board members will ask questions and raise issues of concern.

If there are significant issues of concern or board members feel they need additional time or information, no action will be taken and the matter will be sent back to the Committee for further work or to be taken off the table. Occasionally, the membership will be surveyed as to whether KCBA should take a position on a particular policy matter. The results provide guidance to the Board and are considered in the decision-making process.

If there is no significant concern and the Board as a whole is comfortable with the level of information received, the Board may choose to take action. At the core of every policy position vote, the Board identifies how the policy position is connected to the KCBA mission statement. If a proposed policy decision can't be closely linked to the mission statement, the Board will vote no on the adoption of the policy statement (as it did with death with dignity), even when a no vote is contrary to a board member's personal beliefs and values or the popular sentiment of members.

While some have been critical of KCBA being a policy voice on issues, it is one of the things that I believe sets KCBA apart and makes KCBA a unique, relevant and important organization in our community. KCBA's origins are founded upon the taking of a public policy position: disciplining attorneys who had violated the civil rights of Chinese immigrants. I love that KCBA continues to stay true to its roots; that it takes risks, rights wrongs and speaks out.

Through its policy positions, KCBA provides a unique voice for our legal community and the community at large. KCBA can and does change hearts and minds. We are a stronger, more unified community because of KCBA's policy work and the outstanding work of the Public Policy Committee. This is true even if you disagree with a particular policy position taken by KCBA.

As the Board gets ready to take up the issue of universal background checks on firearm sales, I would encourage you to be proud of KCBA for being willing to consider a controversial and timely issue, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the idea of universal background checks. I am grateful there is an entity willing to look at all sides of an issue, debate an issue and take a stand on an issue, not because it is popular, but because it furthers our mission statement of promoting a fair, just and accessible legal system; a diverse legal community; and a stronger community overall.

Public policy is one of many things that drew me to KCBA and it is one of the many things that keep me at KCBA. I am proud of the policy work done by our Public Policy Committee, the Board and this organization and hope that you are as well.

 

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