Dan Walters

California’s legal system beset by scandal, conflict

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye returns lawmakers applause as she is escorted into the Assembly chambers to deliver her annual State of the Judiciary address on March 23, 2015. Sakauye and the Supreme Court sit atop a legal system that’s beset by scandal and conflict.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye returns lawmakers applause as she is escorted into the Assembly chambers to deliver her annual State of the Judiciary address on March 23, 2015. Sakauye and the Supreme Court sit atop a legal system that’s beset by scandal and conflict. The Associated Press

While other, more pejorative, terms could be used to describe California’s massive legal system these days, let’s just say it’s in disarray, and count the ways.

The State Bar, an agency that licenses and oversees hundreds of thousands of California attorneys, has been wracked by financial irregularities and allegations that it has neglected to protect us from unethical or incompetent lawyers.

State Auditor Elaine Howle has detailed its financial problems, legislative hearings have added to the drumbeat and Elizabeth Parker, who was brought aboard as executive director to clean up the mess, calls it “an organization in turmoil.”

Despite many private negotiations, the Legislature adjourned without passing an annual State Bar dues bill due to a stalemate over reforms and the agency’s future, forcing the state Supreme Court to order limited dues collection to keep it alive until next year’s legislative session.

While the key legislators in the dues issue, Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, and Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, are at odds, they jointly sponsored a legislative request to Howle to delve into the Commission on Judicial Performance, which is supposed to weed out bad judges.

The legislators want Howle to determine whether the commission is doing its job well or is too arbitrary in its secret actions on complaints of judicial misconduct.

The commission took umbrage and last month filed a lawsuit in San Francisco, contending that as a constitutional agency it’s exempt from opening its confidential files to Howle’s auditors. Howle logically responds that she has legally audited constitutional agencies, including the Supreme Court itself, in the past.

That’s by no means the only flap involving judges.

A three-sided battle over California’s largest-in-the-nation judiciary has been raging for years, involving the Judicial Council, an arm of the Supreme Court that oversees the court system; the California Judges Association; and a band of rebels calling itself the Alliance of California Judges.

The latter accuses the Judicial Council and its Administrative Office of the Courts of wasting money on a bloated staff, fancy new courthouses and an unworkable computer system (the latter validated by Howle’s auditors) while local trial courts are starved for operating funds.

The latest rebel volley criticizes the rival judges’ association for caving in to the Brown administration on judges’ salaries, resulting in “a measly 1.36 percent” raise.

Finally, the State Bar revealed the other day that just 62 percent of the graduates from the state’s top law schools, those accredited by the American Bar Association, passed the bar licensing examination conducted in July, down from 68 percent in 2015.

“This really is appalling,” said Stephen Ferruolo, dean of the University of San Diego’s law school.

Appalling as it may be in the abstract, it also could have real-world consequences for the law schools. The ABA wants to raise the bar, as it were, for accreditation to a 75 percent passage rate.

Whether having fewer lawyers is good or bad is another question.

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