Flathead freshman tries to chin the bar 

Legislative hi-jinx

A Kalispell lawmaker at odds with the State Bar of Montana wants to alter the state’s Constitution to allow the Legislature to control the practice of law.

Freshman Sen. Jerry O’Neil, a Republican, works as an independent paralegal and has been wrangling with the bar association for years over the extent of his practice. Bar officials contend O’Neil at times conducts work that should only be done by licensed attorneys. They’ve also requested that his ads not be placed in the attorney sections of phone directories.

But O’Neil, a charter member and secretary of the Montana Libertarian Party, says he’s doing nothing wrong, and he notes that the bar association has so far taken no legal action to limit his business dealings, which include filing paperwork in uncontested divorce cases, providing mediation between feuding parties and working as an attorney in tribal courts.

O’Neil is sponsoring Senate Bill 109, which would strip away law-practice oversight and court-procedure rulemaking from the Montana Supreme Court and hand it to the Legislature. He says the high court has overstepped its bounds, and the bill is needed “to re-establish the principle of separation of powers.”

“I think the Supreme Court is doing legislative law,” he explains. “The Legislature should have the right to say who practices. The access to the court system is a public necessity, and the public body, the Legislature, should be able to make the laws.”

O’Neil says he doesn’t believe SB 109 represents a personal conflict of interest, however. He says the main motivation behind it is to ensure the public has more options for accessing the judicial system. Paralegals, he contends, can provide a cheaper alternative for clients who don’t need full-fledged attorneys for their cases. But state bar officials say they’ll fight the measure.

“Our professional responsibilities go beyond competent representation of our clients,” Montana Bar President Molly Shepherd wrote in the January edition of The Montana Lawyer. “We are accountable to the system of justice itself, which cannot function in recognizable fashion without us.”

If 100 lawmakers in the 150-member Legislature approve the bill, the proposal would be placed on the general election ballot. If voters favored it with a simple majority, the provision would go into effect without the governor’s signature. “If the Legislature would pass the same disciplinary system as the court has now, the Supreme Court would find it unconstitutional,” O’Neil says. A hearing on the bill is scheduled Jan. 26 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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