Senate Bill (SB) 559 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) prohibits the Texas Bar from adopting rules, policies, and penalties that would limit an applicant’s ability to obtain a license to practice law or burden a currently licensed attorney’s ability to maintain or renew their license based on constitutionally protected speech and expressions.
The legislation describes protected speech as anything protected by the U.S. and Texas constitutions, including “speech regarding a sincerely held religious belief, a political ideology, or a societal view, and of expressive conduct.” It also protects freedom of association.
Several recent instances may have motivated the bill, the first being a controversial change to state bar rules governing attorney misconduct that was proposed by the American Bar Association. The rule would expand misconduct penalties against any lawyer who commits harassment or discrimination against another on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or socioeconomic status.
Opponents warn the rule is overbroad as written and would impair the constitutional rights of attorneys.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a letter to the state bar in September 2020 urging them to stop considering the adoption of the new rule because it “threatens the individual liberty of Texas lawyers and is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.”
Paxton wrote that it “could restrict an attorney’s free exercise of religion by disabling an attorney from freely participating in religious organizations that hold traditional viewpoints,” adding, “It also could restrict an attorney’s freedom to associate with political, social, or religious legal organizations.”
The second instance includes attorneys involved in litigating the 2020 presidential election results.
The Office of the Attorney General wrangled with the bar over attempts made to sanction Paxton and his office for filing lawsuits challenging state election results in the 2020 presidential election. Legal actions taken by the bar against the first assistant attorney general were dismissed as unconstitutional by a state district judge.
The Texas Bar has previously defended the integrity of the attorney discipline system, writing in a statement, “The system is designed to ensure fairness to all parties. Partisan political considerations play no role in determining whether to pursue a grievance or how that grievance proceeds through the system.”
The legislation has been referred to the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which is chaired by Hughes.
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Matt Stringer is a reporter for The Texan who writes about all things government, politics, and public policy. He graduated from Odessa College with an Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies and a Bachelor’s Degree in Management and Leadership. In his free time, you will find him in the great outdoors, usually in the Davis Mountains and Big Bend region of Southwest Texas.