Dan Walters

California State Bar overhaul caught up in cross-Capitol conflict

Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, is at the center of two conflicts between the Senate and the Assembly, one over reform of the State Bar, the second over extension of family leave.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, is at the center of two conflicts between the Senate and the Assembly, one over reform of the State Bar, the second over extension of family leave. The Associated Press

Somehow, you knew it was too good to be true.

It’s been evident for years that the State Bar – the quasi-public agency that licenses lawyers – is an organizational mess.

It has functioned, illogically, as both regulator of the legal profession and as a trade association that promotes economic interests of the profession.

It’s as if the Medical Board of California, which licenses physicians and is supposed to crack down on those who go astray, had been merged with the California Medical Association, which protects physicians’ professional and financial interests.

To add even another complication to the State Bar’s place in the scheme of things, it also is an arm, after a fashion, of the state Supreme Court, which holds the ultimate authority over lawyers’ ethics.

The State Bar’s incompatible functions, coupled with financial shenanigans and administrative shortcomings detailed in a state auditor’s report, finally sparked a reaction in the Legislature.

When the State Bar made its routine request to the Legislature for authority to impose mandatory “dues” on attorneys to support its operations, a rank-and-file revolt among the Assembly’s members resulted in a fairly strong bill to reform some of its operations.

It deals with a shameful backlog of disciplinary cases and its finances, requires a majority of nonlawyers on its governing board and begins the process of separating its licensure and trade association functions.

But when Assembly Bill 2878 reached the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, the legal empire struck back.

The committee’s chairwoman, Hannah-Beth Jackson, called the bill “heavy-handed” and insisted on amendments that would water down the reforms, apparently with tacit support from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

One would allow the chief justice to appoint a “special master” to study the State Bar’s organizational structure, rather than the committee proposed by AB 2878.

Assemblyman Mark Stone, who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee and is carrying the bill, told Jackson that he couldn’t accept the amendments because it would render the bill unacceptable to his reform-minded Assembly colleagues.

Jackson told The Recorder, a legal newspaper, “The bill was supposed to be heard in my committee and we were basically told to go pound sand.”

The State Bar bill appears to be one of many points of friction between the two legislative houses that could make the last month of the session in August more contentious than usual.

Another is that the Assembly Labor Committee summarily killed a Jackson-authored bill to expand family leave after the women’s legislative caucus called on the committee’s chairman, Roger Hernandez, to resign because of spousal abuse allegations by his ex-wife.

Internal friction aside, the State Bar reform measure is a very important piece of legislation. The State Bar is a mess and thousands of cases involving attorney misconduct have piled up while it trades allegations with its former executive director, Joe Dunn.

However it happens, the Legislature shouldn’t adjourn without cleaning up the mess.

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