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State Bar Urged to Hire Independent Judges : Legislature May Act on Lawyer Discipline Otherwise, Van de Kamp Warns

September 20, 1987|MYRNA OLIVER | Times Legal Affairs Writer

Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp on Saturday urged leaders of the State Bar of California to hire independent administrative law judges to handle attorney discipline hearings before an angry Legislature strips the Bar of its discipline power.

Wearing a pink "L.A. Lawyer" lapel button adopted by the local Bar association from the name of the popular television show, Van de Kamp rose from his delegate's seat to address the Bar's Conference of Delegates. The conference is made up of about 1,000 representatives of voluntary Bar associations around the state.

The group, whose resolutions merely express opinion and have no effect on laws or rules, is in session during the State Bar's annual meeting which runs through Monday at the Century Plaza. About 2,500 of the state's 105,000 lawyers are attending.

"Intentionally or not," Van de Kamp told his colleagues, "when it comes to discipline we appear to have protected our members rather well while serving the public rather poorly."

The proposal for independent judges was one of several made by Robert C. Fellmeth, a San Diego lawyer appointed by Van de Kamp on orders from the Legislature to monitor the Bar's beleaguered discipline system.

Pleased With Fellmeth's Work

Van de Kamp told reporters after his speech that he is very pleased with Fellmeth's work and that he intended his strong speech to prod the Bar's Board of Governors to hire the recommended six administrative law judges.

Administrative hearings have traditionally been conducted by 448 volunteer attorneys, creating delays because volunteers are rarely available for more than one day at a time. Recently, in response to Fellmeth and the critical Legislature, the Bar has paid about 100 attorneys with more training than the volunteers to do the work.

But Van de Kamp belittled the effort in his speech, saying, "The only difference will be that we pay for a level of inadequacy that we used to get for free."

"Disciplinary decisions are far too important to be made in this way," he added. "And I do not believe the Legislature will allow them to continue to be made in this way. By persisting on this course, we risk total removal from the disciplinary process."

A sticking point with the Board of Governors has been the cost. Bar leaders have said it would cost $1.5 million a year to hire full-time judges for the discipline hearings.

Van de Kamp and Fellmeth, however, set the price at $800,000 annually or, as Van de Kamp said Saturday, $8 per year on top of each California lawyer's $275 annual dues.

But the attorney general made it clear that he believes the discipline system should remain within the State Bar rather than be placed under an independent state agency as doctors are and as some legislators have advocated.

"Discipline cannot continue in its present form," he told the delegates. "But it still belongs where it has always belonged: here in this organization.

'Do It Willing and Well'

"The time is right for moving to an (administrative law judge) system," he said. "Let us do it willingly and well, before it is forced on us in some far less palatable form."

The Bar's tenuous relationship with the Legislature, which controls its ability to collect dues, has permeated the state meeting.

Earlier Saturday, state Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland), accepting the conference's first annual Legislator of the Year Award, urged lawyers to run for legislative seats, noting that only 10 of the 40 state senators are lawyers and that only three of them practice the profession.

"Most of my colleagues in the Legislature are not only non-lawyers," said Petris, who is not an attorney. "They are downright hostile to lawyers."

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