LINCOLN — Tax evasion can result in professional discipline against a lawyer in Nebraska, but first-time drunken driving cannot.
If state lawmakers approve a bill that makes driving under the influence a violation of an attorney's professional conduct, they will violate the Nebraska Constitution, said Amy Martinez, president-elect of the Nebraska State Bar Association.
The measure's sponsor, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, disagreed with her warning.
Martinez and Chambers were the only ones to speak about the bill Wednesday at a hearing before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Chambers said he was surprised to learn that the Counsel for Discipline, which enforces professional conduct for attorneys, does not investigate complaints that involve a first-offense DUI.
He learned about the policy after he filed a complaint last summer against Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, an Omaha attorney who pleaded guilty in June to an aggravated DUI.
Chambers said that amounts to “a free bite of the apple” for attorneys who commit an offense with potentially fatal consequences.
“Judges and lawyers are held to a higher standard,” he said. “They are not to do anything to bring disrespect to the profession.”
While the Bar Association does not condone drunken driving, decisions on what constitutes a professional violation are the sole responsibility of the judicial branch, Martinez said. Chambers' bill, therefore, would represent a constitutional violation of the separation of powers.
The Counsel for Discipline can take action against an attorney's license, ranging from reprimand to disbarment. A partial national review of professional codes found that 19 out of 23 states do not punish attorneys for a first-offense DUIs, Martinez said.
In response, Chambers said lawmakers have mandated the suspension of an attorney's license for failure to pay child support. The authority of the legal profession to regulate itself is not absolute, he argued.
Lautenbaugh declined to comment on the bill Wednesday.
Although the Bar Association opposed the bill on behalf of its membership, its involvement seemed ironic because it stemmed from Lautenbaugh's case.
The senator mounted a legal challenge of the association's practice of using mandatory dues to pay for lobbying. Lautenbaugh successfully argued lawyers shouldn't be forced to pay dues for a political agenda that may conflict with their own.