Commentary

Lawyers in private practice, the Legislature and the responsibility of citizens

April 12, 2022 3:00 am
Floor of the Nebraska Legislature

The floor of Nebraska’s unique Unicameral Legislature. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns about the profession of law in Nebraska.

 I have been blessed to know so many attorneys in private practice who devote countless volunteer hours to unrecognized public service. Attorneys like my longtime mentor and partner, Woody Bradford. Woody taught me to view the law as a vocation, instead of a career. He lamented when advertising became allowed for attorneys, viewing it as tarnishing the image and leading it to the commercialization of the practice of law and the temptation to value profit over service.

Woody has represented countless clients in a pro bono capacity, working to ensure that justice truly is available to all. In addition to many other contributions, Woody has served as president of the boards of Girls Inc., Urban League of Nebraska and the Omaha Schools Foundation, as well being as a founding member of the Tri-Faith Initiative. He currently serves as president of the Omaha Police Foundation.  He has taught me that one must always measure one’s action by the greater good it can achieve and that public service is the noblest of pursuits.

Every single day, attorneys across the state of Nebraska take on clients who cannot afford to hire an attorney. They spend their time and resources to ensure that every Nebraskan has qualified representation. These are the unsung heroes who do not offer their services for recognition or reward but because they feel an ethical duty to care for their fellow humans.

The Legislature

Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature is the place where policy and law come together. And sadly, politics can enter as well. We are lucky to have tremendous staff who have served the people of Nebraska in administrative roles in the Legislature. Imagine a career spanning 43 years, like that of Patrick O’Donnell as Clerk of the Nebraska Legislature. As Patrick said, he is “the protector and guardian of the institution.” He is a consummate public servant and defined his role in a Nebraska Alumni Association publication. “Process is more important than policy outcomes. Policy outcomes change. They’re cyclical. But having a process that’s predictable means we’re fulfilling our responsibilities to be sure the Legislature is sensitive to the public’s needs.” Imagine herding cats, and that is what Patrick does every day with the senators, placing the integrity of the Unicameral as his priority.

Staffers who understand the legislative process and act as critical sources of information for our state senators are more important than ever in the environment of term limits. Staff serve over longer time periods and are the sources of knowledge that goes much deeper than the written records.

Liz Hruska is one such staffer, and as a state legislative fiscal programmer, she is a star. In 2009, for example, Liz’s diligence found that Nebraska was receiving too little federal Medicaid funding. She stated at the time that she was “just doing her job,” but her attention to detail and willingness to dig deep resulted in Nebraska receiving an additional $6.3 million, as was its due. Time and time again, Liz has put her expertise to work analyzing the performance and fiscal operations of the state, turning legislators’ ideas into policy and assessing financial impacts of imposed legislation. And, like so many generous Nebraskans, Liz puts her time away from work into bettering the lives of children in our state, primarily working with the causes of foster children.

Those who are elected to the office of state senator tend to get all the recognition, but without staff members throughout the capitol, concepts could never become reality. We owe all the legislative staff our gratitude for keeping Nebraska on track.

Over my 16 years spent in the Legislature, I have been beyond fortunate to work with true public servants. I may disagree with some of those with whom I have served, but I never once doubted their heart. The Legislature is not a place one goes to get rich — $12,000 a year doesn’t meet that measure. It is where one goes to tackle the issues that affect our friends, families and neighbors. At the risk of leaving out countless great senators, I would like to focus on State Sen. Steve Lathrop. Steve and I have worked together on some of the biggest issues I confronted during my legislative career. Time and time again, Steve has proven himself a person of character and a master negotiator. Steve and I worked with other senators to ensure that undocumented pregnant mothers could receive prenatal care under the Medicaid system, to reach a grand compromise allowing important stem cell research to continue to save lives, to save the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations which gives public sector union employees legal recourse for grievances while protecting us from public employee work stoppages, and to establish juvenile justice reform initiatives. All Nebraskans are better for Steve Lathrop exemplifying the role of a state senator, and he will be missed as he leaves at the end of this term.

Nebraskans

We Nebraskans are incredibly fortunate. As I have written before, we have the purest form of representative democracy in the world. With our Unicameral Legislature, we the people are the Second House. In Nebraska, every single bill in front of the Legislature receives a public hearing. That means Nebraskans have the opportunity to provide input for new laws as they are being created. Every Nebraskan can be part of the legal process, from the moment of a state law’s inception.

The ability to have a say also gives us a responsibility. We must educate ourselves about those we elect to office, listening to what they say and watching what they do. We need to attend hearings when possible to testify on the impact that proposed legislation would have on our lives. And if we cannot attend hearings, we should write, email and call our senator’s office to ensure our voices are heard.

The law is the fastest, single-most effective vehicle to make social change. As a small state, we have demonstrated time and time again what we can do when the three branches of government work together with the public to put us at the forefront of legal innovations. We must celebrate the innovators and leaders who are Nebraskans working in the law and continue to build upon our traditions. We have much of which to be proud and much more work to do. Let’s all remember our shared values of compassion, integrity and dignity and all become leaders in the law to move forward together.

This is the second of a two-part column about Nebraska and the law. Part I can be found here.

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Brad Ashford
Brad Ashford

Brad Ashford was a public servant and attorney. He served four terms in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brad's later focus was on bringing a New Attitude to all involved in governance — to work together without regard to labels. He died April 19, 2022. His widow, Ann Ashford, continues to share some of Brad's essays with the Nebraska Examiner.

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