31 March 2022

Actual Powers of the Bar: The Primary Enabling Statute


So, I've gone over what the Bar claims its powers and duties are, but the Bar is an agency created by the General Assembly approved by the Governor, and placed in the Supreme Court's demesne. It does things which are executive powers (investigation of attorney misbehavior), It does things that are legislative (making rules cum laws for attorneys). It does things that are judicial (punishing attorneys for rules violations). In other words, it is an agency for regulating and controlling attorneys. As with all administrative agencies, there have to be enabling statutes for any powers it has. 

Powers can be those directly enabled by a statute or those required by inference flowing from a duty assigned. This is the start of the slippery slope as the agency claims more and more power until it is well beyond what could originally have been reasonably read into the enabling statutes. Another possible cause of agency overreach is the vagueness / overbroadness of an enabling statute which basically lays no meaningful parameters so the agency can claim any powers it wants.

With all that in mind, let's see if we can list both the direct and inferred powers of the Virginia State Bar, starting with its primary enabling statute.

§ 54.1-3910 is the statute which creates the Bar as a top down organization which is subject to rules and regulations from the Supreme Court of Virginia and enables it to investigate violations of rules promulgated by the Supreme Court for lawyers and report violations to the court. By inference, it allows the Bar to create three committees: Legal Ethics, Lawyer Advertising and Solicitation, and Unauthorized Practice of Law. It then subjects all lawyers in Virginia to its dominion.

All the committees are given one power by inference: to issue advisory opinions. No other powers are given specifically or through inference. There is also no setting of parameters of the opinions requiring us once again to infer them through the names of the committees what they would be opining about.

[Comment: Under its primary enabling statute the Bar has no power to punish formally or informally any attorney for anything. This is entirely a power of the Supreme Court and if the Bar does not have the power to do it the Supreme Court cannot offload one of its powers on the Bar. As far as it goes, the Bar doesn't have the power to prosecute under the primary enabling statute either. Thus a reported violation would stand on the report.  

Remember, a basic, bedrock tool of statutory interpretation is inclusio unius est exclusio alterius; in other words, if specific a list of things are granted all others are excluded. Thus, if three committees are named all others are disallowed. If there are listed powers/duties for the committees all others are disallowed. HOWEVER, don't get too excited here and start start wringing your hands while you mumble about having the Bar just where you want it (for whatever nefarious reasons you may have for wanting to make our beloved Bar rue the day). There are other statutes scattered around Chapter 39 of Title 54.1 handing other powers to the Bar and we haven't finished looking at them yet. Surely, in the name of all that's good, the Bar's been enabled for all the things it does, all the positions it fills, and all the committees it's formed. We'll keep moving forward to explore further.]

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