Capitol Alert

As Legislature stalemates on State Bar bill, the fallout begins

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye answers questions from The Bee’s Editorial Board at the offices of The Sacramento Bee in Sacramento on Jan. 22, 2014.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye answers questions from The Bee’s Editorial Board at the offices of The Sacramento Bee in Sacramento on Jan. 22, 2014. RBenton@sacbee.com

Wednesday night’s legislative stalemate on giving the State Bar permission to continue collecting dues from the state’s lawyers and, more controversially, overhauling its organization and operations, is already creating fallout.

Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, whose reform measures were stymied in the Senate Judiciary Committee, immediately fired off a five-page letter to the State Bar, which licenses and regulates lawyers, seeking detailed information on its finances, including its reserves, its non-dues income and specifics on spending. The letter also asked Elizabeth Parker, the State Bar’s executive director, who was brought in to straighten out the agency after a series of scandals and scathing audits, to detail how the State Bar will reform itself.

In the final days of the session, with private negotiations on a State Bar dues bill stalemated, members of the committee had grilled Parker sharply over a wide range of specific issues, including the extent of the agency’s reserves and how long it could operate if it could not begin 2017 with continued authority to collect dues from attorneys.

Parker, meanwhile, announced on Thursday that the State Bar would ask the state Supreme Court, which shares oversight of the agency with the Legislature, to give it authority to collect at least some 2017 dues from lawyers “in the absence of legislative action.”

During a previous stalemate over State Bar dues authority, the Supreme Court authorized it to assess lawyers partial dues to keep its regulatory functions intact, but Parker said in her announcement that the new request “is expected to be more comprehensive...”

Were the Supreme Court to give the State Bar its full dues, pegged in the stalled bills at $309 per lawyer per year, it would reduce the financial pressure for the kinds of changes the Assembly Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Assemblyman Mark Stone, have been seeking. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was involved in the negotiations with Stone and Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Cantil-Sakauye, with Jackson, opposed going as far in reforms as Stone and his committee wanted.

Jackson drafted her own dues and reform measure, and it passed the Senate just before the Legislature’s midnight Wednesday deadline for action, but was never taken up for a vote in the Assembly. Prior to the Senate vote, Assembly leaders told Senate leaders that the bill would be dead on arrival.

Despite the intensity of the dispute, both legislative factions agree that State Bar reform is needed. The devil has been in the details, such as whether the State Bar board will have a majority of lawyers or non-lawyers, and, most heatedly, over whether the agency’s regulatory functions should be divorced from its role as a professional advocacy organization.

The issues have divided the State Bar’s current board, with some non-lawyer members urging “deunification,” as it’s called. The Assembly calls for at least exploring that major structural change, while Jackson, backed by Cantil-Sakauye, opposes it.

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