Dan Walters

Legislative stalemate on State Bar dues morphs into a new battle

New state Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger is congratulated by new state Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar as Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Gov. Jerry Brown applaud at the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building on Jan. 5, 2015. Cantil-Sakauye and other justices must decide how much the State Bar can collect from lawyers to support its operations until the Legislature resolves its conflict on the issue.
New state Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger is congratulated by new state Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar as Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Gov. Jerry Brown applaud at the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building on Jan. 5, 2015. Cantil-Sakauye and other justices must decide how much the State Bar can collect from lawyers to support its operations until the Legislature resolves its conflict on the issue. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The state Legislature adjourned on Aug. 31 without passing the annual bill authorizing the State Bar to collect “dues” from the state’s attorneys to finance its operations.

It’s not the first time the dues bill has become enmeshed in Capitol politics, and the expectation was that the state Supreme Court would quickly order collection of enough dues to keep the quasi-public agency operating until the political squabble was resolved, as it last did in 1998.

However, the intense conflict over the State Bar’s organization and operations that held up the dues bill has morphed into an equally sharp war of words over how much the Supreme Court should allow it to extract from lawyers.

Critics have roasted the State Bar for neglecting the discipline of miscreant attorneys and spending too much time and money acting like a legal trade association. Some, including some members of the State Bar’s governing board, have called for shedding its latter functions to concentrate on the former.

The state Assembly passed a dues bill that contained a number of reforms and suggested that “deunification,” as it’s called, be considered. But the Senate balked at that suggestion, content to give a new management structure more time for internal reform.

Extensive private negotiations, with Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye involved and backing the Senate’s position, failed to resolve the conflict before the Legislature ended its session.

Cantil-Sakauye quickly directed the State Bar to submit a request for dues “to fund the Bar’s discipline system” until the Legislature resolved its conflict, but the agency responded with a 43-page request suggesting that it should be able to receive not only the dues that legislation would have provided but perhaps even more to finance “public protection functions.”

The request also detailed reforms that the State Bar had undertaken, including cancellation of its lavish annual meeting that had been scheduled at Disneyland next year and restrictions on using dues money for social gatherings where liquor is served. And it raised the specter of big staff cuts and delays in lawyer disciplinary cases without adequate dues.

The request touched off a blizzard of “amicus curiae” briefs from various legal factions, many of them critical of the State Bar and urging that court-ordered dues be kept to a minimum to force reforms.

One was signed by 21 professors at the University of California’s Hastings law school, backing the Assembly’s demand for greater reforms. Another, from the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law, called for rejecting the State Bar’s dues request, saying it “insults the Legislature’s legitimate authority.”

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, backed the State Bar’s request for something beyond a bare-bones amount.

The State Bar went off the rails during a previous regime and is taking some steps toward reform. However, it cannot fully right itself and become the consumer protection agency it needs to be without shedding its trade association alter ego.

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