Do elected state officials know enough about the law?
LANSING — Legislators work every day to make and amend laws, but how many have a background in the field?
Thirteen lawmakers — of 148 in both House and Senate — have worked as lawyers, according to the State Bar of Michigan. That accounts for less than 10 percent of the Legislature. It’s a slight drop from 17 lawyer-legislators in 2013-14, and 22 a decade ago.
Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, is one of the 13 lawyers currently serving, and he said he believes more lawyers should be roaming the Capitol.
“You don’t need a prerequisite to be a lawmaker,” Lucido said. “There is no formal education, there is no formal training. There is no expectation other than to come up to the State House, attend your committees and to vote out bills from committee to the floor.”
Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, whose background is in health policy and environmental policy, said he believes diversity in the Legislature is beneficial.
“I don’t think being a lawyer or being a judge or having that kind of background determines whether or not you’re going to be a successful legislator,” Hammoud said.
“I think collectively, the legislative body needs to be one that has a diverse background,” he added. “Imagine sitting on, for example, the Health Policy Committee and not having a single individual who understands the health care world. I think that would be very troublesome.
“Although they may have a background where they can write laws, but the content of what you’re writing is what you really need.”
Hammoud said legislators with no background in law are given the appropriate tools to succeed. The Legislative Services Bureau helps non-lawyers in the Legislature draft bills. Hammoud said this service is particularly helpful.
Lucido said he doesn’t want a Legislature full of lawyer-legislators. He said people have other skill sets to offer.
“Maybe farming or agriculture, maybe auto mechanics or engines,” he said. “Then you’ve got people with accounting backgrounds, engineering backgrounds, medical backgrounds, legal backgrounds.”
Diversity is important, he said. But so is understanding how the laws these people make will work in practice.
Lucido said there should be some sort of legal training when legislators arrive in Lansing.
“Truth be told, if you’re making law that others have to follow, and/or will be enforced in a court of law, it would make sense if we had lawmakers have some legal training of some sort,” he said.
Term limits have created issues as well, Lucido said. Legislators are limited to two terms, or eight years, in the Senate; and three terms, or six years, in the House.
“Years ago, we didn’t have term limits, and I believe term limits have impeded on the process extremely,” Lucido said. “Lawmakers that are termed out probably have just realized their full potential. Now you know exactly what you’re doing, where you’re going, who you get in contact with” — and then you have to leave office.
Lucido also said the 13 members with experience in law need to be spread out among the committees to give each committee some legal expertise.
“You know how the system works if you’ve done it on the outside, so when you come on the inside, it works even better,” Lucido said.
Lucido isn’t alone in thinking the state could benefit from a greater number of lawyer-legislators, either.
Brian Kalt, the Harold Norris Faculty Scholar and professor of law at Michigan State University, said, “The number does sound kind of low to me, just my gut reaction.”
“I think that the state would benefit from more lawyers,” he said. Kalt also said it’s important to have experts in other fields and non-lawyers, “but we seem to have that problem solved.”
Having legal training for new legislators would be helpful, but would not be a substitute for legislators who have studied and practiced law, Kalt said. Lawyers bring a different way of analyzing things, which is important when drafting and editing laws, he said.
One important part of the legislative process is to write laws that ensure that whatever the lawmaker wants to be accomplished gets accomplished, Kalt said.
Kalt also said lawyers have a knack for figuring out things that can go wrong with legislation and are good at seeing areas where things could be misconstrued or misused in practice.
Hammoud said although there is some training in the lawmaking business for new members, he’s continued to look to lawmakers like Lucido for support.
“Those are also individuals I lean on for their expertise, and for things to get done,” Hammoud said.