Dan Walters

As Legislature deadlocks, State Bar asks Supreme Court for money

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, right, has allied with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León, left, in a dispute over funding for the State Bar.
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, right, has allied with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León, left, in a dispute over funding for the State Bar. Sacramento Bee file

Political and legal wrangling over the fate of the State Bar took another turn Monday.

In the wake of a legislative stalemate, State Bar trustees asked the state Supreme Court for authority to collect at least some fees from attorneys to maintain its operations.

However, the trustees didn’t specify exactly how much of the $315 per lawyer in annual “dues” they should get and backed off from asking the court to declare that the State Bar could collect a broad array of operational funds without legislative approval.

Had they made the latter request, which the State Bar staff originally proposed, it would have been a virtual declaration of war on the Legislature, which adjourned Aug. 31 without giving the agency authority to assess dues for 2017.

Even so, an initial motion to seek funds to “ensure full functioning of the State Bar’s public protection functions” drew a sharp retort from one trustee, Michael Colantuono of Grass Valley, that it would be seen as a “single-digit salute” to the Legislature.

Ultimately, the board, with one dissenting vote, agreed on a similar, but still nonspecific, request to the Supreme Court for sufficient dues income to continue operating until the Legislature can resolve its internal differences over organizational reforms of the much-troubled agency, which licenses and regulates the state’s attorneys.

It has been under fire from the state auditor and others for slipshod financial practices and a backlog of attorney disciplinary cases. Some critics have urged that the agency’s board have a majority of nonlawyers, and that it be limited to licensure and regulatory functions and stripped of its other role as a professional trade association.

The Legislature’s two judiciary committees have been squabbling over the depth of reform, leading to an impasse on authorizing dues assessments for 2017. The Assembly has voted for a major overhaul while the Senate – allied with Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye – has taken a more cautious approach.

When the Legislature adjourned without acting on a dues bill, the State Bar’s executive director, Elizabeth Parker, announced that it would seek dues-assessment authority from the Supreme Court.

The State Bar’s general counsel, Vanessa Holton, quickly drafted a request that would provide virtually full financing and a Supreme Court declaration that legislative approval for dues is unnecessary.

However, Cantil-Sakauye then intervened with a letter that indirectly rejected such an aggressive position vis-à-vis the Legislature, and ordered that the State Bar seek dues “to fund the Bar’s disciplinary system” until the Legislature acted.

A narrow interpretation of that directive could have led to layoffs of some of the State Bar’s 500-plus employees, as it did during a similar impasse 18 years ago, and much of Monday’s meeting was devoted to deciding how much money the State Bar could seek without running afoul of Cantil-Sakauye’s directive or offending the Legislature.

Ultimately, it adopted its nonspecific request and left it to the Supreme Court to decide how much it can collect from attorneys next year.