Lisa Blue and Randy Sorrels.

The bar has suspended a gaggle of election guidelines that restricted the way that candidates could campaign for votes. The move recognizes a growing trend for candidates to run for president-elect by gathering lawyers’ signatures on a petition—in addition to a bar subcommittee picking two candidates. State bar leaders are also acknowledging that the election guidelines were likely unconstitutional restrictions on free speech and campaign spending.

“It’s a pretty radical change, but it’s a reflection of the times that we live in right now,” said State Bar President Tom Vick Jr. “The idea is to level the playing field for everyone who wants to run and make it clear that all lawyers are entitled to do what they want to do and support the candidate they want to support.”

The petition candidate trend started in 2013 with Steve Fischer, who lost the race but still inspired State Bar President-Elect Joe Longley to choose the petition route—and win in a May runoff. Now, two petition candidates, Lisa Blue and Randy Sorrels, have already started gathering signatures to run in the 2018 election. However, the bar’s Nominations and Elections Subcommittee won’t even pick its two nominees until December, and the bar’s board of directors won’t approve them as candidates until late January 2018.

The guidelines worked when the bar-picked candidates voluntarily agreed to follow them, but the guidelines disadvantaged them if a petition candidate was running, Vick noted. For example, Longley said he campaigned right up to the end of the voting period, rather than follow a guideline that stopped campaigning earlier. Longley is happy to see the rules suspended.

“It has a lot of questionable campaign activity regulations that either they’re unconstitutional or totally unenforceable,” Longley said.

Vick said the bar will work to rewrite the guidelines early next year. Eventually, the bar’s two candidates might get picked in September rather than January, so they can campaign for the same length of time as petition candidates.

“The right thing for our board to do is make rules that make allowances for all the possibilities and make it as fair as possible,” said Vick, adding that the bar also might begin budgeting for the cost of runoff elections, which happened in both races with petition candidates.

Longley said he was always on the same page with Vick about doing away with the current election guidelines. He’s also pleased by the petition candidate trend. He said the subcommittee’s method of picking nominees is an insider process, in which applicants try to tell subcommittee members what they want to hear. Petition candidates speak to a different audience—the entire bar membership.

“You’re going to have the insiders versus the outsiders. Once we get the bar membership cognizant of the fact they can bring real reform and real change in the state bar, I think the trend is going to be more to the petition candidates,” Longley said.

Vick noted the bar must still pick its two candidates, just in case no one attempts to become a petition candidate, or if an aspiring petition candidate fails to gather the 5,000 signatures they need to become certified.

Fischer said he’s happy that he opened the door for the petition candidates who came after him. But he said the bar needs to change more election rules, such as lowering the number of signatures needed on petitions. He hopes that petition candidates keep on gathering signatures in-person by talking to lawyers, rather than relying on technology to get online or email signatures.

“It’s important for someone running for bar president to have actual contact with attorneys,” he said.

Both Blue and Sorrels say they’ve been taking petitions to lawyer events or continuing legal education seminars to gather their signatures. Both started the process sometime in August.

Longley’s campaign inspired Blue to try to become a petition candidate. She said she had questions about the constitutionality of some of the election guidelines, and it’s good they’re suspended.

“One platform I’m running on is to make the Texas state bar more open in every single aspect. As far as making it easier for candidates to run by suspending the rules, I think it’s a wonderful thing,” said Blue, a Dallas solo.

Sorrels, managing partner in Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz in Houston, said he would also apply with the Nominations and Elections Subcommittee to become one of its nominees. Since there’s no guarantee the subcommittee would pick him though, he’s also collecting petition signatures. It’s great that the petition process causes him and Blue to get out and talk with lawyers, he added.

“The more you talk to people, the more you hear people’s ideas, suggestions and complaints. It’s a good thing,” Sorrels said. “It’s not just a committee saying, ‘One of you two people will be president, and may the best man or woman win.’”

What are the changes?

The Nominations and Elections Subcommittee found on Sept. 21 that the two aspiring petition candidates would be going to lawyer events, sending mass emails and using social media. Meanwhile, the bar board wouldn’t choose its candidates until January 2018. The subcommittee decided that when it chooses two nominees prior to the January board vote, they’ll be able to engage right away in the same activities as the two aspiring petition candidates.

To allow this, the subcommittee suspended election guidelines in the bar board’s policy manual. The changes will allow nominees to talk to others about their candidacy and to campaign at any point in time, from when the subcommittee picks them as potential nominees all the way through the end of the voting period.

It will be fine for them to campaign through mass emails—even to people they don’t know—and for them to use their websites and social media without restriction.

Other changes allow board members to endorse candidates and allow candidates to solicit endorsements from legal organizations and publicize those endorsements. Among other things, the changes do away with a campaign spending limit of $20,000, but still allow candidates to seek a reimbursement of campaign expenses up to $15,000.