SACRAMENTO — Seeking to toughen disciplinary action against lawyers, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp on Wednesday named consumer advocate and law professor Robert Fellmeth as state Bar discipline monitor, the first such post in the nation.
Fellmeth, a professor at the University of San Diego, will use the organization he founded, the Center for Public Interest Law, to oversee the state Bar's disciplinary procedures, which have been harshly criticized for their laxity.
"The monitor is expected to be the watchdog for the interests of the people of California and hopefully a catalyst for public and legislative confidence in a system that currently lacks both," Van de Kamp said at a press conference to announce Fellmeth's appointment.
Van de Kamp noted that there are 100,000 attorneys practicing in the state and that the Bar Assn. expects to receive complaints against as many as 10,000 of them this year.
In the past, only a handful of complaints have led to censure or disbarment and some cases have lingered before the Bar for as long as 10 years without action.
"Especially over the last year, there have been numerous complaints that the Bar's attorney discipline system is overly secret, improperly lenient and almost unbearably slow," the attorney general said.
The Bar has been criticized for acting slowly against attorneys who take money from a client but then fail to perform legal services, attorneys who do a poor job of representing clients, and attorneys who have committed crimes ranging from misdemeanors to murder.
The three-year position of state Bar monitor was created last year in a bill by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside) that initially would have taken the authority to discipline lawyers away from the Bar Assn. But because of opposition to the measure from the legal profession, lawmakers agreed to establish the monitor post as a compromise.
Presley told reporters that if the Bar does not significantly improve its ability to police itself under the oversight of the monitor, he will again seek to establish an independent authority to discipline attorneys.
A one-time associate of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Fellmeth was a prosecutor in San Diego County for seven years specializing in white-collar crime.
Fellmeth's first task will be to spend five months reviewing the Bar Assn.'s disciplinary procedures and make recommendations for improvement. Fellmeth noted that the state Bar is in the process of changing its approach in response to the criticism it has drawn.