Editorials

State Bar proves it needs a little sunshine

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. The Associated Press

Annual legislation authorizing the State Bar of California to collect dues from attorneys wouldn’t ordinarily warrant much attention beyond the legal profession.

But this year’s dues bill comes after the California State Auditor in June revealed an astonishing level of dysfunction at the bar, including questionable spending and lax discipline of errant attorneys.

The Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego law school, which tracks the bar’s spotty history of policing its own, is asking the Legislature to require that the association become subject to the Public Records Act and the state’s open meetings law.

As described in The Recorder, a publication aimed at lawyers, the Assembly Appropriations Committee agreed, and slipped amendments into the dues bill, Senate Bill 387 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. The bar is protesting. In our view, the disclosure provisions represent a good start.

The auditor, which concluded that the bar failed to properly report its backlog of discipline cases, counted it at 5,174 as of 2011. The bar helped alleviate the backlog in part by imposing weak sanctions, the audit said.

The California Supreme Court, which reviews attorney discipline cases, took the extraordinary step of rejecting 27 cases because penalties were so limp. Upon further review, the bar increased sanctions in 21 cases, five of which resulted in disbarment.

Subjecting the California State Bar Association to basic provisions of open government would help cleanse an organization that has shown itself to be in need of greater oversight.

“Thus, to reduce its backlog, the State Bar allowed some attorneys whom it otherwise might have disciplined more severely – or even disbarred – to continue practicing law, placing the public at risk,” the audit said.

The audit also found that the bar bought and renovated a downtown Los Angeles building at a cost of $76.6 million, $50 million more than what it told the Legislature the building would cost.

Unlike state boards that oversee doctors, nurses, dentists and other professions, the State Bar functions as a trade association for lawyers and regulates them. That is an inherent conflict. Adding to the insider nature, 13 of 19 members on the board are attorneys; only six are public members.

The Center for Public Interest Law suggests ending the attorney majority on the bar board, and eliminating provisions allowing for the election of six of the 13 lawyer board members. Both steps make sense. Lawyers, no one’s dummy, probably would not vote for candidates who promise to crack down on abusive lawyers.

We can think of other steps: Why not require bar board members and top executives to file meaningful statements of economic interest, as officials in other state agencies do? For now, however, subjecting the bar to basic provisions of open government would help cleanse an organization that has shown itself to be in need of greater oversight.

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