PHOENIX - The justices of the state's highest court could be in court themselves soon, defending their rules about who can practice law in Arizona.
Two out-of-state attorneys are asking U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow to void Arizona Supreme Court rules that place limits on the ability of some out-of-state lawyers to practice here. They want Snow to rule that once someone is authorized to practice law in one state, that right should be transferrable everywhere.
Arizona Chief Justice Rebecca Berch declined to comment on the litigation. And John Phelps, president of the State Bar of Arizona, which recommends rule changes to the high court, said his organization has not taken a formal position about the change being sought.
But Phelps suggested the bar is likely to take a dim view of such automatic interstate licensing, if for no other reason than it would limit the State Bar's ability to discipline attorneys for improper actions.
Arizona made it easier for some out-of-state lawyers to practice here when it created a system of reciprocal licensing that allows Arizona attorneys to practice in some other states and lets those states' lawyers practice here.
There are some requirements, like a background check and fingerprinting. Attorneys must also have actively practiced for five of the last seven years and take a one-day crash course on Arizona rules and laws.
But attorneys from non-reciprocity states have to take the full-blown, two-day bar examination, which requires extensive preparation and a delay while waiting to find out if there was a passing score.
The lawyers who are suing are from California and Montana, both non-reciprocity states. Also suing is the National Association for the Advancement of Multijurisdictional Practice, based in California.
Attorney Grant Savoy, representing the challengers, said there is no reason for Arizona's blanket rule.
"An experienced attorney has already proven his or her competence, and that he or she is not a threat to the public by their prior licensing and track record," he argued in his federal court papers. Savoy said the testing requirement for lawyers from non-reciprocity states "rejects the best evidence of competence, and instead relies on a testing protocol that is known to lack content validity, criterion or predictive validity."
He pointed out the American Bar Association has recommended all U.S. lawyers with three years of experience be allowed to practice anywhere in the country, without limits.
Phelps said the challenge is not surprising, given the pressure on law firms to work with clients whose business is not just multistate but also international.
He said the traditional boundaries that constrained practices by state are disappearing and the law "is becoming kind of universal," what with model laws that most states adopt.
But Phelps said that still leaves the concern about the bar's ability to "oversee and regulate the conduct of the lawyers ... in Arizona."
The petition has gotten the attention of attorney Tim Burr, who teaches at Arizona State University.
It was Burr, then in private practice, who waged a four-year fight to get the Supreme Court to adopt the reciprocity rules.
His concern, however, wasn't to help attorneys from elsewhere. He did a lot of real estate work and said Arizona's rules inhibited him and others from representing clients who needed help beyond Arizona's borders.
Burr said the simple answer is for those who don't have reciprocity to become part of that system.
"Rather than be a part of the system, they're trying to attack the whole system," he said.
There are potential problems dealing with some non-reciprocity states, like California, where the state bar is supporting efforts by an illegal immigrant to practice law there.
"They'd rather admit an illegal alien than a U.S. citizen from Arizona," he said. "How does that work?"
California allows attorneys to practice if they have graduated from a law school not accredited by the American Bar Association, which other states don't allow.
But Savoy, in his lawsuit, says the concerns are overblown, and Arizona's rules illegally affect interstate commerce.