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Leave Well Enough Alone

Lawyers: The attack on the state bar is unfounded; it should remain independent.

May 30, 1996|JAMES TOWERY and LAURIE ZELON | James Towery is president of the State Bar of California and a partner with the firm of Hoge, Fenton, Jones & Appel in San Jose. Laurie Zelon is president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. and a partner in the Los Angeles office of Morrison & Foerster

Throughout its almost 70-year history, the State Bar of California has been independent and nonpartisan; it should remain that way.

The primary functions of the state bar, the mandatory organization to which 150,000 California lawyers belong, are the admission and discipline of lawyers. Its system for disciplining lawyers is a model for the nation and more effective in protecting the public than any other professional discipline system in California. The bar also promotes legal services for the poor, sponsors legislation to improve the administration of justice, writes ethical rules for lawyers and performs myriad other activities for the benefit of the legal profession and the public.

The bar is under attack because of its independence from politics. Ballots are being mailed this week to all California lawyers asking whether the bar should be abolished. The plebiscite question, as written by the Legislature, does not specify what would replace the independent bar, what it would cost or how it would be governed.

The move to abolish the bar is being opposed by the broadest coalition of legal organizations in the history of our state. The scorecard: In favor of abolishing the bar is just one group, the Lawyers' Committee for a Yes Vote, consisting of a few dozen lawyers; in opposition to the plebiscite, 113 lawyers groups, including every major and specialty bar in the state.

Why this overwhelming coalition to keep the bar from being abolished? Because lawyers value the independent, nonpartisan bar. Lawyers do not want to see political pressures applied to the governance of the legal profession. They do not want to turn over their democratic governing structure to an unknown, uninformed government agency.

Claims the bar's critics have made are effectively rebutted by a state auditor's report released this week. It recognized the "efficiency, effectiveness and reliability" of its discipline system. The report found no bloated bureaucracy, but rather commended the bar for downsizing its staff over the last year. The auditor's report supported the bar's purchase of a building to consolidate three locations, a decision that will save bar members $10 million to $14 million over the next decade. This massive audit provided no compelling reason to dismantle the bar.

To show how far some of the opposition will go to politicize the plebiscite, they directed unfair attacks against the Judicial Nominees' Evaluation Commission over the nomination of Justice Janice Rogers Brown to the California Supreme Court. The bar has no more influence over these evaluations than a governor has over a judge after appointing that judge to the bench.

To suggest that the evaluation commission is a liberal cabal intent on rejecting conservative judicial nominees is to turn history on its head. Since its creation in 1979, the commission has evaluated more than 2,000 nominees, rating more than 75% of them as qualified or better. The ultimate proof of effectiveness and fairness is the extremely high quality of the trial and appellate judges in California.

In the final analysis, the question is whether the bar should remain as independent and nonpartisan as it has been for 69 years. The current attack simply underscores why politics and the regulation of the legal profession make bad bedfellows.

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