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RELACS Report | Spring 2023

May 15, 2023

2023 Call for Nominations 

Nominations for the 2023-24 Research, Editorial, Legal and Committee Staff executive committee will be accepted through Friday July 7. Openings exist for vice chair, and four directors on the Executive Committee. Elections for RELACS Executive Committee members will be conducted at the RELACS Annual Business Meeting, held in conjunction with the NCSL Legislative Summit in August 2023.

Vice-Chair: The vice chair is elected for one year and automatically succeeds the following year to the office of chair for one year. The vice chair, along with the chair, serves as a representative of the association on the Legislative Staff Coordinating Committee (LSCC) and should be able to travel (at the expense of the legislature that employs the vice chair or chair) to the LSCC meetings to be held during the 2023-24 term.

Directors: Directors are elected for a two-year term and may be reelected for a second consecutive term. To the extent practicable, the eight directors must represent committee staff; bill drafters; editors; researchers; legal staff including litigation counsel or committee counsel; staff members engaged in other legislative drafting, code revision, statutory publication, or administrative rules review or compilation; and persons doing other committee, legal, editorial, or research work in state legislatures.

If you know of someone who would be a great representative of the legislative staff serving in one or more of these roles, please consider nominating them for one of these open positions. Or, if you’d like to become more involved with RELACS, please feel free to nominate yourself. Make your nominations by July 7, 2023. Thank you for considering the nomination of a deserving RELACS member. 

Make a Nomination

Are You Talking to Me? 

Jim McKee 

Jim McKee is an attorney/drafter for the House Bill Drafting Service of the Florida House of Representatives. 

JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER: But I think Justice Kagan’s question [about whether Congress has never read any of the Supreme Court’s cases in the area under discussion] is more general. You know there have been efforts from time to time in the lower federal courts to send opinions to Congress. There is a drafting section in both houses. 

Does the Solicitor General's Office ever get together with them and say: Look, here—here are some general statements in these opinions, we’re just calling them to your attention?

JUSTICE ELENA KAGAN: Gosh, you could wipe out half of our docket.

JUSTICE BREYER: Well, that’s a good question. 


Boechler, P.C., v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, oral argument transcript, pp. 64–65, Jan. 12, 2022. 

Justice Kagan is probably exaggerating, but she has a point: Many court cases come down to a court trying to determine a legislative body’s intent in a statute. Legislative attorneys have an obligation to monitor court opinions in an organized way and to incorporate the rulings of those opinions in bill drafts when feasible.

In our office, we have a rotation among the attorneys to review the weekly release of opinions from the Florida Supreme Court for any opinions relevant to our work, draft a summary of those opinions, and provide the summary to the entire office—not just drafters, but editors and other staff as well—so our entire office stays abreast of newly released, relevant opinions. This is helpful not only for substance of the ruling, but also for keeping our staff familiar with how the court is interpreting statutes—“reading the room,” if you will. For example, I draft in the criminal law area, and here in Florida, the recent case of State v. Johnson, 2022 WL 803413 (Fl. March 17, 2022) has a useful discussion of how the court currently interprets criminal statutes to determine the appropriate unit of prosecution for double jeopardy purposes. 

If you serve as committee staff, you should stay in touch with the relevant opinions in your subject matter area. Certainly, if a case makes the news, you should be aware of it, but you may also want to develop a habit of regularly monitoring the courts for opinions in your subject matter area. It’s always good to be aware of a case before a lobbyist comes by to discuss how he or she wants the law “fixed.” 

One further thought, as alluded to by Justice Breyer: The federal courts have a program in which some circuits participate entitled the Statutory Opinion Transmission Project, which provides the relevant House and Senate drafting offices with opinions concerning technical issues in federal legislation. For more details, please see Interbranch Information Sharing: Examining the Statutory Opinion Transmission Project, Marin K. Levy & Tejas N. Narechania, Interbranch Information Sharing: Examining the Statutory Opinion Transmission Project, 108 Calif. L. Rev. 917 (2020). The Statutory Opinion Transmission Project encourages the judicial branch to send opinions that address technical issues with statutes to the leadership and drafting staffs of Congress in the hope that these issues might be addressed in future legislation. The Statutory Opinion Transmission Project is presently underutilized, but it’s a program worth investing in that could be useful at the state level as well. 

In summary, courts and legislatures both speak to what the law is, and they should listen to each other. Most authors don’t like to read reviews of their work, but it’s imperative that your office listen to what the courts say. The better the feedback loop your office develops, the better your office’s output will be in the long run. It could be really helpful for your state to develop something like the federal program mentioned above in which courts send your office opinions, whether published or unpublished, that reflect on possible technical issues in your office’s work. If any state does have such a program, please let us all know how it’s working.

Thoughts on Maintaining Nonpartisanship 

Othni J. Lathram, director, Legislative Services Agency, Alabama

Editor’s note: Othni moderated a well-attended session called “Maintaining Nonpartisanship: The Art of Staying Objective in the Polarized World” at the 2022 Staff Hub in Atlanta. 

In recent years it seems one of the few things all Americans can agree on is how much we disagree with each other. The ability to instantly share and see opinions, information, data and critiques has done something to us all. As a society we process more thoughts more quickly, react more strongly and often allow ourselves to be more emotionally charged than is warranted by every situation. The resulting increases in division and partisanship permeate even our state legislatures. Given this reality, the question is how do we maintain our nonpartisanship as legislative staff? In this RELACS Report installment, I offer three strategies I find helpful: Know what it means to be nonpartisan, lean into the relationships and take pride in what you do.

I always begin my thoughts on being nonpartisan by reexamining what the word means and—maybe more important—what it does not mean. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “nonpartisan” as “free from party affiliation, bias or designation.” I do not find that definition to be particularly helpful, so I turn to the synonyms and find words like “candid,” “unbiased” and “impartial.” Those words steer me in a more helpful direction. Being nonpartisan requires one to give his or her best effort to each and every member, on each and every project, in a manner that is candid, unbiased and impartial. Being nonpartisan requires me to provide counsel and technical assistance without regard to whether I agree with a proposed policy or solution and in a manner that instills confidence that I have given my best effort.

Being nonpartisan does not mean that I cannot have opinions; I do, strong ones. And I expect the people I work with to have strong opinions also—most people of substance do. What is required of nonpartisan legislative staff is to avoid letting your opinions interfere with or lessen the quality of your work. Further, being nonpartisan does not mean that I do not have biases. I am biased, especially in the belief that all legislation should accomplish, with fidelity, those goals the sponsor intended. Finally, being nonpartisan does not mean that I am not an advocate. I am always an advocate for the legislative institution and its role in an ordered society and for actions that are true to that. 

My second thought on maintaining nonpartisanship in these times is to lean into the relationships. This is meaningful in two directions. The more obvious is the need to lean into the relationships with our members. It is important to understand what they are trying to accomplish, why it is important and how they think it is important—especially when your personal beliefs conflict with the member’s goal. Getting past the rhetoric and recognizing the member’s vision often humanizes the intent in a manner that helps you understand the policy objective and accomplish what the member is seeking. One of the primary drivers of division is the dehumanization of ideas and beliefs. While staff cannot solve this problem unilaterally, we can be part of the solution in how we react to difficult circumstances. It is possible to disagree, even adamantly, and still do the job well and with respect for the process.

In the other direction, we need to lean into the relationships with our colleagues and peers. Legislative staff work is stressful, consuming and often isolating. It is important that we have trusted sources to turn to and that we look out for one another’s well-being. We must ensure that our offices are safe spaces in which to work and provide refuge when needed to navigate our stresses, triggers and discomforts.

The final strategy, and maybe the most useful, is to remember why you do this work and take pride in it! It is my sincere belief that nonpartisan legislative staff are the champions of democracy. Remember, you do not have to agree with every bill that passes to have pride in the work you did, the process that occurred and our system of government. We arm every member, from the speaker to the lowest-ranking minority member, with good information and service. We ensure they have technically sound research, bills, resolutions and whatever else they need to advocate for the policies they seek. When every member has access to the same level of service, ideas are much more likely to rise or fall on their merits; that is what democracy is all about.

Given the recently concluded midterm elections and the fact that we have already started the 2024 election cycle, the levels of partisanship and rancor are not dying down anytime soon. However, as nonpartisan legislative staff, we can control how we allow political disunity to affect us. In my experience, legislative staff lead the way in so many arenas, and we can also lead in fostering a better legislative environment. Our calm professionalism can be an example in our state legislatures of how we do not have to be divided. 

2023 RELACS and LRL Professional Development Seminar

Sept. 19-22 – Minneapolis

The RELACS and LRL Professional Development Seminar brings together staff who are critical to the legislative process including legislative librarians, information specialists, researchers, editors, legal, code revision, bill drafting, committee and policy analysis. The 2023 seminar features sessions on important legislative issues, soft skills, best practices, opportunities for networking and tours of local libraries and/or archives.

Learn more and register for the meeting.

Pilot RELACS Legislative Exchange Program

The new Pilot RELACS Legislative Exchange Program (LEP) provides an excellent professional development opportunity for legislative staffers. Selected participants will spend a few days with another legislature’s legislative services office to learn about operations in another state. The goal of the exchange program is to familiarize participants with all aspects of their host legislature with an emphasis on their job specialization. In addition to offering hands-on training, the exchange facilitates the sharing of ideas and innovations between state legislatures, with the host office and exchange participant learning from each other.

We are seeking to compile a list of legislative services offices willing to host a participant in 2023. The LEP application process just opened for legislative staff to participate in this unique program. We are on an accelerated timeline this year as RELACS was just awarded a grant to offer stipends to the 2023 participants.

Please watch for emails regarding the LEP and help RELACS launch the first year of the new exchange program.

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