THE BLOG
08/05/2014 11:33 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

In Iowa, 'Chicken Case' Tests Anti-Lawyer Populism

Growing up in a family of lawyers, it always seemed fairly obvious that being an attorney is generally a noble and advantageous profession, especially when it comes to a career in politics.

But, what if times have changed? What if higher education is not the qualification it used to be? What if it's a - gulp! - negative?

A couple of high-profile elections might soon answer those questions.

Clearly, education will be part of the backstory if/when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, he of recall-survival fame, gets serious about a 2016 White House run. Not only is he a non-lawyer, but the governor makes no secret of not earning a college degree, although we might say "yet." PolitiFact reports that he intends to obtain one soon - perhaps through a credit-for-experience program he helped establish as governor.

However, we do not have to wait for Gov. Walker to test the higher education theory. The lawyer, not-lawyer issue has gained sudden prominence in what The Daily Beast describes as "Iowa's ugliest Senate race ever."

The DB sets the scene: "Iowa's Senate race may be one of the most coldly methodical face-offs in the country this November... In one corner is Democrat Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman from the industrial city of Waterloo. In the other is Republican Joni Ernst, a first-term state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard from the rural county seat of Red Oak. Both candidates have clear strengths, clear weaknesses, and campaigns that are not afraid to go for the jugular."

The "he's a darn lawyer!" angle blasted into the spotlight after a video, shot at an out-of-state fundraiser and widely distributed via Internet, showed Rep. Braley warning supporters that they "... might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee."

He meant U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa's popular senior senator. And the implications of how he feels about farmers was not exactly positive.

All hell broke loose. The Des Moines Register newspaper noted that "... the remarks by Braley, a trial lawyer and congressman who is running in the high-stakes open race for retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's seat, quickly caught fire on Twitter and various national news sites. Many political insiders predicted that this incident will bruise a campaign that they've been confident would see victory in November."

The newspaper also cited "politics expert" David Yepsen saying "... this is bad for Braley and it will hurt him. Chuck Grassley is a political icon."

In response to the video, Grassley spokeswoman Beth Pellett Levine said that "... by the logic expressed on this recording, a trial lawyer shouldn't be involved in policy making about agriculture, or energy, or health care."

The Braley campaign was on task, issuing a quick apology. And that might have been the end of the "lawyer" theme.

Except for the chickens.

A Republican blogger broke the story that Braley "... forced the neighborhood association around his summer home to pay nearly $2,000 in legal fees he accrued after his wife complained about a neighbor's chickens." The report was that the chickens were animal-assisted therapy, crossing into the Braley's yard.

Now, the lawyer angle has legs, or maybe we should say wings. In today's super-charged politics of negativity, one instance of "obnoxious lawyer" behavior is a gaffe, but two offers a negative-ad "narrative." It's worth noting that Braley is actually a bit of a lawyer's lawyer - he was elected to the House in 2006, but previously served as president of the "Iowa Association for Justice" - the trial lawyer group - from 2003 to 2004.

I've been worried about this anti-lawyer sentiment for years. Research consistently ranks attorneys at the bottom of trusted professionals, even below bankers and journalists, and a New York Times "Economix" blog, citing the Congressional Research Service, reported in 2012 that "... nearly two of every five United States senators is a lawyer, but the share is declining."

In that survey, lawyers account for 23.91 percent of today's House, down from a high of 42.56 percent in the 87th Congress (1961-62). The NYT story noted that "... today there are also about as many representatives who previously worked in banking and business as there are lawyers, with bankers and businessmen making up 21.38 percent of the House."

Certainly, the Iowa race will be well-funded and negative enough to field-test the anti-lawyer sentiment - and, by extension, the "education qualifications" trend. If, as some suggest, the lack of formal education is actually a bonus for Gov. Walker, we'll soon know.

Still, notwithstanding all those lawyers in the family, I cling to a hope there's room for at least some formally trained legal folks in Congress. Along with a fair share of farmers, bankers, stay-at-home moms, business folks and what have you ... and maybe, someday, even the occasional website publisher?

Sara Corcoran Warner is publisher of the California Courts Monitor website, "Your Daily Ration of Civil Justice Rationing," and a frequent commentator on national legal policy and civil courts issues.

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