California has a rogue’s gallery of malfunctioning state agencies, with the Board of Equalization the current poster child for disarray and miscreant behavior.
In the recent past, the spotlight of shame also illuminated Parks and Recreation, Public Utilities Commission and Cal Fire, among others. And then there’s the State Bar, which licenses hundreds of thousands of attorneys.
It’s been an odd duck, functioning as both consumer protection agency and a trade association for lawyers and jointly overseen, more or less, by the governor, the Legislature and the state Supreme Court.
With that hybrid and somewhat isolated status, the State Bar became an inbred, self-serving bureaucracy that consumed mandatory “dues” from attorneys, spent lavishly but amassed a huge backlog of disciplinary cases.
Finally, under pressure from the Legislature, which controls mandatory State Bar “dues” on attorneys, it began to clean up its act. Its executive director was sent packing and new staff was brought in to attack the disciplinary backlog.
However, its bifurcated functions remained a sore point, leading to a legislative stalemate last year over the annual dues bill.
Ultimately, the State Bar agreed to shed its professional promotion activities – sort of.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, introduced an agency-backed bill, Senate Bill 36, to formalize the separation, reauthorize dues for two years and, among other things, reduce the dominance of lawyers on its board.
The Senate Judiciary Committee she chairs approved it on a 6-0 vote last week after she described it as “a very carefully thought out effort” to deal with State Bar problems.
The bill is likely to clear the full Senate, but there’s some residual criticism in the Assembly because SB 36 does not completely divorce the State Bar “sections” that represent legal specialties.
It folds them into a nonprofit corporation that would still have official standing, with specified education responsibilities, and whose fees on lawyers would still be collected by the State Bar.
That stands in stark contrast to the purely private trade associations that other licensed professions form to lobby the Legislature, collect and distribute campaign contributions, and otherwise promote themselves – such as the California Medical Association.
There’s no particular reason why lawyers couldn’t and shouldn’t follow that model, drawing a bright line between regulatory and professional activities.
Even if this conflict is resolved, however, the State Bar still faces another flap – demands from law schools that it lower the minimum score on licensing exams that their graduates must take.
California’s “cut score” is one of the nation’s highest; pass rates are, therefore, relatively low; and law schools face loss of national accreditation if their graduates fail to meet minimum passage rates.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has ordered a study of the cut score, but law school deans are complaining that they are being excluded.