Dan Walters

State Bar disaster continues as California politicians ponder fate

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye returns lawmakers applause as she is escorted into the Assembly Chamber to deliver her annual State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Legislature, on March 23, 2015. Cantil-Sakauye’s objections are holding up legislation that would overhaul the State Bar.
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye returns lawmakers applause as she is escorted into the Assembly Chamber to deliver her annual State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Legislature, on March 23, 2015. Cantil-Sakauye’s objections are holding up legislation that would overhaul the State Bar. AP

It’s been painfully evident for years, if not decades, that the State Bar – the quasi-public organization that licenses lawyers and is supposed regulate their conduct – is an institutional disaster zone.

Multiple reports by outside auditors about its managerial shortcomings, regulatory backlogs and financial irregularities, very public exchanges of charges and countercharges by State Bar officials, and dueling lawsuits all attest to the mess.

Five years ago, the Legislature ordered the State Bar to create a “Public Interest Task Force” to delve into its problems and recommend reforms.

It took four years just for the panel to be convened – itself a testament to the State Bar’s innate dysfunction. This week, however, its conclusions emerged, along with a minority report that says the draft is too weak, ducking the mandate to recommend “meaningful solutions.”

By its own words, the majority didn’t offer concrete reforms because it didn’t want to interject itself in an intense, backroom debate in the Capitol over the State Bar’s fate.

When the State Bar sought its usual bill authorizing it to charge lawyers “dues” to cover its expenses, the Assembly rebelled and made dues contingent on a series of reforms – including, oddly enough, creating another commission to study its operations and recommend changes.

However, the bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, in part because Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye didn’t like its provisions. The Supreme Court wields the ultimate authority on disciplining lawyers. And the bill remains in limbo as the Legislature begins the last month of its biennial session.

Both factions of the task force agree “that significant changes are needed” to make the State Bar an effective agency.

However, the majority just suggests alternatives for possible change while the minority focuses on what should be obvious to anyone: The organization’s dysfunction stems directly from its dual functions as a regulatory agency charged with protecting the public from incompetent or venal attorneys and as a trade association that promotes lawyers’ professional and economic interests.

“We conclude that the only answer to the Bar’s persistent dysfunction is to de-couple its regulatory and professional association functions,” the minority says.

The State Bar’s structural and operational maladies are not only well documented, but continue even as legislators and others ponder its future.

This week, the Los Angeles Business Journal reported that the State Bar has selected a new contractor to clean up a multi-million-dollar, malfunctioning internal computer system after dumping the original contractor for “seriously flawed” work.

This week, too, the Los Angeles Daily Journal reported on new suits being filed relating to the messy departure of Joe Dunn, the state’s former executive director – a continuation of charges and countercharges of malfeasance and corruption that have rattled the organization for months.

The time for more study is long past. The time for action, leading to the de-coupling of the State Bar’s incompatible functions and other structural reforms, is now.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the state's 28th Chief Justice and former trial and appellate court judge in Sacramento, was summoned Wednesday, March 23, 2016 for jury duty at Sacramento Superior Court. She was awaiting word Wednesday afternoon as to wheth

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