ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Lawyers are always a good punch line. So what do you get when you have too few lawyers in the Maryland General Assembly (search)?
Bad law -- and that's no joke.
The number of lawyers in Maryland's General Assembly has dropped precipitously over the last 38 years, according to information provided by the Department of Legislative Services, and some lawmakers say that's made legislating, in some cases, more difficult.
The dearth of attorneys has also coincided with burgeoning workloads over the 90-day session. This session 2,732 bills were introduced, last year 2,482 and, by comparison, only 954 bills were introduced in 1931.
While many lawyers still legislate, their numbers have dwindled from 69 attorneys in 1967, to 45 attorneys in 1985, and in 1999 fell to an all-time low of 29. The number has risen, but only 37 list their employment as law.
Democratic Delegate Luiz R. S. Simmons is one of those. A practicing trial lawyer, Simmons sees the loss of practicing attorneys in the General Assembly as a loss for the entire state.
"I believe there is a propensity to write more bad laws today than there was 25 years ago," Simmons said. "You need more practicing attorneys who can talk about what is happening."
"Well, the General Assembly used to be a place for gentleman, it used to be a part-time legislature," said Senate President and lawyer Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (search), a Democrat.
"Lawyers did the job quite well in the sense that the General Assembly had no staff whatsoever," he said. "Lawyers would donate their time to draft the bills just like Thomas Jefferson donated his time.
"Times change, people change and professions change," Miller said.
But what hasn't changed is the lure of the law profession. There are more lawyers in Maryland, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Bar Association (search) said.
Diminishing legal representation in the General Assembly "is the antithesis of the state," said MSBA spokeswoman Janet Eveleth.
Maryland has about 32,000 lawyers, 21,000 of whom belong to the MSBA and yearly another 1,500 more lawyers take the state's bar exam.
The bar association, she said, is so concerned by the declining number of attorneys in state elective offices that it is considering a campaign to draft lawyers into politics.
Today, when elected to the General Assembly, it seems many of those practicing attorneys are drawn to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.
"Lawyers are aware of the annotated code of Maryland," Miller said. "They are aware of the various nuances of the law."
Lawyers get to see how laws passed in the session are practiced, Simmons said.
Democratic Delegate Kathleen M. Dumais is also a practicing lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee. She agrees with Simmons, she said, that the General Assembly needs more lawyers, but not for the same reason.
"I don't think we write bad laws because we have a lot of checks and balances," Dumais said. "Each committee has lawyers on staff."
But debate over legislation often takes longer, Dumais said, because of the need to educate committee members.
Another lawyer on the committee, Republican Delegate Susan McComas said she believes having lawyers on the judicial committees is especially germane because they understand the mechanics of law.
"What if I were on Economic Matters (Committee) without a really good science background?" McComas said. "I could see myself getting lost in the science aspect."
There need to be more lawyers, said Democratic Delegate Jill P. Carter, another committee member, and they need to be people who better reflect the diversity of the state's population.
"I am in a unique position in being the only female, black, lawyer in the House of Delegates," Carter said. "In the whole history, there have only been three in the General Assembly."
Several other delegates, including engineer and Judiciary Committee member Democratic Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez see the loss of lawyers as a less troublesome issue.
"I don't think public policy should be made by lawyers," Gutierrez said. "I want to see more class diversity. . . . I've had the concern we make laws with a middle class mentality or above."
The House Speaker is able to see both sides of the argument.
"I think that it is good people come from all walks of life," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat. "It is nice to have lawyers represented in various committees."
And the lawyers appear to agree, even if it requires a lot of explaining.
"When we are creating social and public policy, we need a lot of different perspectives," Dumais said, "No matter how frustrating and difficult and challenging it may be at times."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.