Of the 17 candidates for five seats on the D.C. Bar's board of governors last June eight were black. None of the black candidates was elected.
Therein lies a developing controversy within the local bar community.
Just after those resulst were in, board member Charles A. Hobbs, a white lawyer who was not up for reelection, wrote to bar president John H. Pickering to express his concern. "For our board to have no voting black members is not right, and I know you feel this way, too, Hobbs wrote.
He wanted Pickering to know that he intended to bring up this "sensitive subject" at the next board meeting and that he planned to suggest that a committee be appointed to recommend "practical and fair ways and means for Black lawyers to be elected to the board."
About a month later, the officers of the Washington Bar Association, a voluntary organization for black lawyers, also wrote Pickering. ". . . the steady decline of minorities elected to board and officer positions" in the D.C. Bar is an ominous trend, the Washington Bar leadership said. The election results, the group said, compel the bar "to act to remedy the present extinction of black leadership" in the D.C. Bar. All attorneys who practice in the District must belong to the D.C. Bar (which should not be confused with the D.C. Bar Association, a voluntary group).
Last week, WBA president J. Clay Smith Jr., at Pickering's request, wrote another letter, which was distributed to the 23-member board of governors at its Tuesday meeting.
The Washington Bar Leadership "believes that the furture direction of the legal profession in the District of Columbia hangs in the balance if the trend of black exclusion from leadership positions in the bar continues," the letter said. As a result, the WBA wants a volting seat on the board of governors, the letter said. Later, Smith said that suggestion should be considered only if on other solution works.
The upshot of all this was that the bar's board of governor's the policy making arm of the bar, voted to appoint a committee, selected by Pickering, to study the bar's nomination and election process in connection with minority representation on the board. The committee is to report back to the board by January.
The next -- and in some ways the most telling -- episode in this touchy discussion occurred the following day. The Washington Bar Association sent a Mailgram to Pickering requesting that tape recordings of the September and October board meetings, during which black representation was discussed, "be preserved as the comments and actions of the board may be relevant and material to further proceedings. . ." (See Lawyers, C5, Col. 1) (LAWYERS, From c1)
"starting," is how one board member described that correspondence. Sounds like "litigation" talk, another member said. Clay Smith, who is also a member of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, makes no secret that the WBA is serious about getting minority representation on the bar board. The "ultimate relief." Smith said, may be in the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has overall jurisdiction over the activities of the bar committee.
The decision to appoint the bar committee was not made without debate. The question ultimately comes down to whether the bar should alter its election procedures to guarantee that a black will have a vote on the board, or wheather the bar should wait it out another year and see if last June's election was an aberration or a sign of the future.
A black has not been elected to the D.C. Bar board of governors since 1977, according to bar records. Six black lawyers were nominated in 1977 and one Patricia Wynn, was elected to a two-year term. Four blacks were nominated in 1978 but none was elected.
There are 30,000 lawyers in the D.C. Bar, and estimates are that between seven and nine percent of those lawyers are black. Two of the three nonvoting, nonlawyer representatives to the board, appointed by a Citizens Advisory Committee, are black. Five of the board's 20 voting members are women.
It is, of course, a troubling question for Pikering and, as he says, "for the bar as a whole. It's a matter of concern. Until we have further study and recommendations, I'm reserving my own judgement on any particular solution."
The bar board "needs to keep a good sense of its community responsibility," said Wynn, who was defeated in her bid for reelection this year. "I think minority members help tend to keep that in the forefront (rather) than people who have less contact with the black community," she said.
Candidates for the bar's board of governors are selected by a nominating committee appointed each year by the board. According to various board members, in an apparent effort to make sure that a black was elected to that board, eight of the committee's 14 candidates this year were blacks. There are a variety of explanations for why that strategy didn't work.
First, once the list of nominees went out, there was a groundswell of support for two lawyers, Robert S. Bennett and James J. Bierbower who were not selected by the committee. Their names were added to the ballot by petition and both won seats on the board. Various board members, who are critical of the committee's tactics, have said that there was a backlash from Bar members who were annoyed that the nominating committee had emphasized black candidates while ignoring representatives from some sections of the local bar, such as small- and middle-sized firms.
In addition, the large number of black candidates only succeeded in splitting up the vote so that all black candidates were defeated, these board members said in interviews last week.
"I say hogwash" to the complaint that the committee nominated too many blacks, said Clay Smith from the Washington Bar.
"First of all, you don't have a great deal of (black) representation on the D.C. Bar (board) so what were they to do, nominate fewer (blacks)?" Smith said. "What they did is what any reasonable committee would do. They increased the number" of black candidates, said Smith, who was once chairman of the bar's nomination committee.
Another problem with getting elected to the bar's board of governors is name recognition. At election time, each bar member is sent a tabloid size newsletter with photographs and short bigraphies of each candidate and a ballot.
"Most of the blacks who have run for the board of governors have not had the name recognition which everybody thinks gets people elected," said one board members who asked not to be identified.
"A more carefully selected group of nominees in the next election should be able to produce some black and minority members on the board," said board member Alan B. Morrison. "Util we try that i don't think there's a basis for doing anything else."
The bar has tossed around various solutions to the absence of a black on the board. For example, it was suggested that members be allowed to cast all five votes for one board candidate rather than the one-vote- one candidate system. Or, the board itself could appoint a voting minority member if none was elected. Or, a specific seat could be seat aside for the Washington Bar Association, which has 1,000 members. But talk of tinkering with the election process upsets some board members.
"I think the solution proposed, particularly the seat for the WBA, are worse than the lack of black members," Morrison said in an interview. "It's undermocratic and it would produce an outcry from other associations for similar types of representation. It would signal in some way that blacks are different than anyone else."
"We're not tied to a black seat on the (D.C.) Bar," Clay Smith said. But, he said, "if there is no other solution then they ought to consider it."
"The bottom line has to be representation," Smith said. "The whole purpose of our thrust is not to be locked out of this bar association."
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