Dan Walters

Bill on State Bar dues displays Legislature’s cross-Capitol friction

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye will deliver her annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature on Monday, March 19, 2018. Bail reform and state court funding have been key topics of concern for the chief justice.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye will deliver her annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature on Monday, March 19, 2018. Bail reform and state court funding have been key topics of concern for the chief justice. Sacramento Bee file

As the Legislature begins the last few days of its biennial session, hundreds of measures are pending – not counting, of course, “mushroom bills” that will sprout in the dead of night and pass before anyone outside the Capitol can react.

Specifics of unsettled issues vary widely, but the overarching tenor of the Capitol is friction between the two houses.

While cross-Capitol rivalry often flares during the final days of any session, even though Democrats dominate both houses, this year’s version is particularly sharp.

In part, it’s institutional. The Assembly is becoming more assertive in challenging the Senate’s recent status as the more dominant house.

In part, it’s ideological, with a bloc of moderate, pro-business Democrats setting the Assembly apart from the more liberal Senate.

In part, it’s personal, with clashes of personality between the leadership cadres of both houses.

And in part it’s political, as subfactions of Democrats joust in this year’s elections.

Examples abound, such as details of legislation to reauthorize the campaign against carbon emissions. However, none is more obvious than a confrontation over what in past years has been a routine chore – authorizing the State Bar to collect dues from attorneys.

When a bar dues bill was taken up in the Assembly, it sparked a bipartisan demand to require reforms of the quasi-public agency that licenses and regulates attorneys and also serves as a trade organization for the legal profession.

A series of scandals and investigations revealed an organization mired in dysfunction, as even its executive director acknowledged at one legislative hearing.

The Assembly revolt exemplified its newly assertive mien and in response, a reform bill was drafted by Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Mark Stone and passed. But it received an ice-cold reception in the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairwoman, Hannah-Beth Jackson, is clearly allied with Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Days of private negotiations among Stone, Jackson and Cantil-Sakauye failed to produce an agreement. Last week, Stone offered what he described as a compromise, dropping or modifying some of the most contentious provisions having to do with the makeup of the State Bar board and dividing the agency’s regulatory and professional advocacy functions.

The State Bar’s critics in the Assembly were unhappy with the retreat, as a contentious committee hearing on Wednesday underscored, but allowed the proposal to move to the Assembly floor. Jackson, however, immediately trashed it, calling it a “reckless, hurried path toward deunification.”

Then – appearing to break procedural rules – she placed her version of reform, which maintains a lawyer majority on the board, into Stone’s original bill without his permission, which angered Stone.

This battle, brewing for years, could still be raging when the Legislature adjourns. If so, the Supreme Court could order some dues to be collected for regulatory matters in 2017 and the cross-Capitol battle would resume when the Legislature reconvenes in December.

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