OLYMPIA – The Washington State Bar Association is on record in favor of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples as a matter of practicality for lawyers and of fairness in society.
The resolution was adopted unanimously by the group’s 14-member Board of Governors despite considerable opposition from association members, said board president Mark Johnson, of Seattle.
“We felt it was appropriate to take a position,” Johnson told the Tri-City Herald. “There certainly will be people who will be distressed.”
As part of the state’s judicial branch, the bar association is authorized by the state Supreme Court to license and discipline lawyers, and membership is required for lawyers to maintain their licenses.
Stanley A. Bastian, of Wenatchee, former president of the bar association and the board’s presiding officer, said the resolution adopted during meetings Sept. 18-19 is the first of its kind nationwide to be adopted by a mandatory state bar association.
“Having one set of rules that apply to all couples engaged in recognized relationships would provide clarity and help ensure equitable treatment for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation,” Bastian said in a statement issued by the group.
Association members were not polled on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized, a step the state Supreme Court has refused to impose without legislative action and the Legislature has not adopted it, the group did solicit comments on the issue on its Web site as well as in public forums in Tacoma and Spokane, Johnson said.
Additionally, the September 2007 issue of the Washington State Bar News was devoted to problems in handling cases involving same-sex clients.
Response from members seemed to lean slightly against the resolution, but the board decided otherwise because of the impact on legal practice and civil rights, Johnson said.
The bar association has no plans to introduce legislation granting civil marriage rights to same-sex couples but will support such measures that are introduced by others, Johnson said.
Association members who oppose the resolution can choose to direct that money from their annual license fees not be spent on lobbying that would support equal marriage rights, he said.
Under Washington’s domestic partnership law, the status of same-sex couples varies in different contexts, raising problems for lawyers in areas ranging from contracts to family law, he said.
For example, Johnson cited a study by the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles law school that found same-sex couples raise more than 7,400 children in Washington state. Lack of marriage rights and other differences complicate adoptions, estate planning and other matters for those couples, he said.
“It increases the costs of representing same-sex couples, diminishes the certainty with which clients can be advised and raises the risk of litigation against the clients, against the people they deal with and against the lawyers who represent them,” Johnson said.
The board decided the bar association should be heard on the matter, said Edward F. Shea Jr., a board member from Pasco.
“The mission statement for WSBA provides that one of the guiding principles is access to justice, as well as diversity, equality and cultural understanding throughout the legal community,” Shea said. “We felt as though the resolution was in line with the guiding principles of our bar association and therefore supported it.”