SAN FRANCISCO — The State Bar turned to the Supreme Court on Tuesday to bail it out of a budget crisis brought on when Assembly Republicans blocked passage of a bill allowing it to collect dues from California's 87,000 lawyers.
Fearing that it will have to shut down operations and lay off its 400 employees by January, the Bar asked the high court to act by Dec. 1 to make clear whether it has the authority to collect dues of up to $205 annually from each lawyer in the state.
"The urgent need for cash flow to continue operations is real and immediate," the Bar said in a letter to the court.
The situation arose in the final hours of the 1985 session, when Assembly Republicans blocked the Bar's dues bill, citing complaints about its failure to adequately discipline lawyers who cheat their clients.
The Bar then failed to persuade Gov. George Deukmejian to call a special session to resolve the dispute. The action, believed to be without precedent, left the Bar without legislative authority to collect any dues next year.
In the latest twist, one termed a "desperation move," the Bar is arguing that the high court has the power to authorize it to collect annual dues, even though the Legislature has been authorizing it for decades.
Additionally, the Bar is arguing that as an arm of the judicial branch of government, it may have the authority on its own to collect dues. It points out that its duties--chiefly licensing and disciplining lawyers--are written into the Constitution and state statutes.
The Bar has an operating budget of $21 million, $18 million of which was to come from dues in 1986.
"We simply had to act before the end of the year in order to make sure we stay in business," said State Bar President David Heilbron.
"I believe, at least I hope, that they (the legislators) will be understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves. . . . We in no way are attempting to circumvent the Legislature. We are simply acting as a constitutional agency must to fulfill its duty to stay in business."
Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), speaking through a spokesman, called the Bar's appeal to the court "outrageous and arrogant."
"This action has been taken by the same small clique that has been running the Bar all along," Nolan said through press secretary Thomas M. Pottage.
Nolan was among the leading critics of the Bar's handling of discipline, accusing it of moving too slowly on egregious cases and failing to adequately punish lawyers who cheat their clients.
In addition to expressing concern over the Bar's disciplinary apparatus, Assembly Republicans charge that the Bar has become too active by getting involved in judicial elections, lobbying in Sacramento and using some of its funds to support legal aid.
'That Is Their Ace'
Assemblyman Elihu M. Harris, (D-Oakland), chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, called the Bar's action a "desperation move."
"That is their ace, and they are playing it now," Harris said. "If it were me, I think it is something I would play when I felt I had run out of options."
Harris, who has occasionally criticized the Bar, particularly over its admission policy, predicted that the result of the dispute will be "some restructuring."
He noted that Nolan and others have indicated that the Bar's role should be limited to licensing and disciplining lawyers. If the Bar wants to remain involved in other functions, critics say, it should become a private, voluntary organization and let the state take over the disciplinary process.