On Politics

Are there too many lawyers in the General Assembly?

As the General Assembly starts a new session on Tuesday, one legislative constant will remain unchanged — a lot of the 113 lawmakers on Smith Hill are lawyers.

The ProJo’s Political Scene says there are 24 lawyers in the legislature — 15 in the 75-member House and nine in the 38-member Senate:

The list includes House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, both expected to be reelected by their respective chambers. It includes others in powerful positions, among them: House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, House Majority Whip Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston, House Deputy Whip Christopher Blazejewski, D-Providence, and House Deputy Speaker Donald Lally, D-Narragansett.

It’s understandable that lawyers gravitate to politics; there’s common ground, after all, between legal work and the sometimes-abstruse process of legislating. 

Yet some view the broader prevalence of lawyers in government as a sign of the hostile terrain facing blue-collar workers with political aspirations.

Moderate Party head Ken Block recently argued that lawyers are so commonplace in the Assembly since their professional schedules permit them to fit in legislative public service. That was part of Block’s rationale in calling for shorter legislative sessions — a move , he says, that would promote a greater variety of occupations among lawmakers:

When in session, the General Assembly meets three days a week (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), usually beginning the session day at 4:00pm. Legislators serve on committees that typically meet directly after the daily legislative floor sessions, with committee hearings running from 4:30 or 5:00pm until sometimes quite late in the evening. This schedule is not at all friendly to most standard 8 hour a day workers with a family at home. …

It does not need to be this way.

 The vast majority of states with part time legislatures meet for far less time than the Rhode Island legislature. According to data I pulled from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 state legislatures meet for a shorter session than Rhode Island, many of them for far less time than the Rhode Island legislature. 

11 states complete their sessions within 3 calendar months, and another 5 only meet biennially.

Suffice it to say, the General Assembly didn’t rush to consider Block’s concept. There are also additional reasons for why more people don’t run for public office, including a distaste for public scrutiny and the perennial struggles of the state GOP. 

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of longer versus shorter legislative sessions.

So with lawyers set to remain part and parcel of the legislative mainstream, making better use of the sessions lingers as an ideal.