Dan Walters

California State Bar reform bill stalls as negotiations break down

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, stands for the pledge with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León, first lady Anne Gust Brown and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, at the state Capitol.
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, stands for the pledge with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León, first lady Anne Gust Brown and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, at the state Capitol. Sacramento Bee file

With scarcely two weeks remaining in the Legislature’s biennial session, many of its remaining high-profile issues appear to be stalled.

Now, after negotiations broke down late last week, you can add much-needed reform of the State Bar to the no-fly list, along with Gov. Jerry Brown’s transportation tax, housing reform and reauthorization of the state’s plan to reduce carbon emissions.

The State Bar is the quasi-public body that both licenses and regulates lawyers and also serves as a trade association for the legal profession.

The Assembly passed a reform bill, aimed at making the scandal-tainted agency more accountable to the public and perhaps leading to a division of its functions.

The legislation also responded to the State Bar’s annual request for authority to levy dues on attorneys to support its operations.

However, when the bill reached the Senate Judiciary Committee, its chairwoman, Hannah-Beth Jackson, demanded changes that her Assembly counterpart, Mark Stone, refused to make.

Jackson, who has a powerful ally in Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is demanding that the bill’s shift to a non-lawyer majority on the State Bar board and a commission to study a major structural change be toned down or eliminated.

Stone says that unless he agreed to their demands Jackson and Cantil-Sakauye told him “they’re not interested in a bar bill.”

Jackson, however, insists that she, too, wants “meaningful reform” but said she and the chief justice want to protect the Supreme Court’s ultimate authority over the legal profession.

With each side demanding provisions that the other rejects, it’s a stalemate that could leave the agency without the authority to collect dues and gasping for money in 2017.

If the session ends with the issue unresolved, the State Bar could hold out by tapping reserves and cutting expenses, as it did in 2009 after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a dues bill. However, that could worsen its already large backlog of unsettled investigations into attorney misconduct.

Alternatively, the Supreme Court could, as it did 18 years ago when then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a dues bill, order some dues to be collected for basic operations.

While it might seem to be a lawyer-vs.-lawyer squabble of little consequences, the stakes in the outcome are, in fact, quite important.

The State Bar is a structural and operational disaster zone and is in sore need of reform to protect the public from crooked or incompetent attorneys. Its dual role as regulator and professional advocate is both unique and illogical and lies at the core of most of its problems.

Left to its own devices, the State Bar will not reform. But the only leverage the Legislature has to compel improvement is its authority over the dues the State Bar needs.

This year, for the first time, one legislative house, the Assembly, has stood up and demanded serious reform – not unlike its historic push for structural and operational change in another hidebound, insular agency, the Public Utilities Commission.

It’s time to force the issue.

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