State Bar Association OK with gay marriage

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerSeptember 28, 2008 

OLYMPIA -- The agency that regulates the state's lawyers has come out in favor of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The Washington State Bar Association's Board of Governors voted unanimously last week to support equal access for same-sex couples to civil marriages and the legal rights and obligations that come with a marriage certificate.

"We felt it was appropriate to take a position," said Mark Johnson, a Seattle lawyer and president of the board. "There certainly will be people who will be distressed."

The bar association is part of the judicial branch and is authorized by the state Supreme Court to license and discipline lawyers. Membership in the association is mandatory for all licensed lawyers.

Craig Michael Liebler, president of the Benton-Franklin Bar Association, said his organization is independent from the state bar association and has taken no position on marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The 14-member board of governors for the Washington State Bar Association is responsible for policy-making and meets once every six weeks at locations around the state.

The board has two members from Eastern Washington, including lawyer Ed Shea Jr., who has an office in Pasco.

Shea said lawyers from the Tri-Cities mostly have supported the board's decision.

Even though some may disagree, the board thought the bar association should lead the way on the issue, he said.

"The mission statement for WSBA provides that one of the guiding principles is access to justice, as well as diversity, equality and cultural understanding throughout the legal community," he said. "We felt as though the resolution was in line with the guiding principles of our bar association and therefore supported it."

Johnson said the association did not poll its members to gauge their positions on the marriage equality resolution, but did solicit comments from members through its website and had public forums in Tacoma and Spokane.

The association also devoted the September 2007 issue of the Washington State Bar News to legal issues faced by lawyers who represent same-sex clients, he said.

Johnson said he thought feedback from members had leaned slightly against the resolution, but the board viewed it as an issue affecting both legal practice and civil rights in the state.

A court rule allows the board to take positions on issues if they are found to relate to or affect the practice of law or the administration of justice, he said.

"There undoubtedly will be some of our members who will be distressed at the passage and undoubtedly will contend that it is a social and political issue," he said. "But (the rule) does not require that the issue be devoid of social or political controversy or impact, nor does it require that the board weigh the social or political impact."

Johnson said limiting same-sex couples' right to marry affects all areas of legal practice, from contracts to family law.

He spoke about a study from the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law that said same-sex couples raise more than 7,400 children in Washington.

And while the state has passed two versions of a domestic partnership law in the last two years, the law doesn't extend civil marriage rights and protections to same-sex couples that are equal to straight couples.

Johnson said that presents a minefield for lawyers who are representing same-sex couples for adoptions, estate planning and other legal transactions.

"It increases the costs of representing same-sex couples, diminishes the certainty with which clients can be advised and raises the risk of litigation against the clients, against the people they deal with and against the lawyers who represent them," he said.

Kennewick lawyer George Fearing, a Democrat who is running for congress against Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, said he believes the question of marriage rights should be left to state governments. He had no opinion whether it was appropriate for the bar association to take a position.

The bar association has no plans to introduce legislation granting civil marriage rights to same-sex couples, but Johnson said the resolution passed this week means the association would support any legislation proposed by others with testimony and perhaps lobbying efforts.

But bar association members who disagree with the resolution can choose not to have money from their annual license fees go toward lobbying efforts for equal marriage rights, he said.

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