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California and the West

Beleaguered State Bar Faces Uncertain Fate

Agencies: It will begin going out of business as a result of Wilson veto unless Legislature acts quickly.

April 14, 1998|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The State Bar of California, a 71-year-old agency that licenses and disciplines lawyers, faces diminution and perhaps even demise for incurring the rancor of Gov. Pete Wilson.

Angered by some of the bar's liberal stances and mindful of anti-lawyer public sentiment, Wilson in October vetoed a bill that authorized the bar to collect the bulk of the annual dues that it gathers from the state's 128,000 practicing attorneys.

The standoff over renewing the bar's authority has continued for months, and hopes for an easy compromise have long since faded.

Now, unless an urgency bill passes the Legislature in the next few weeks, the bar will begin to dismantle in June. Prospects for that are about fifty-fifty, according to a legislative aide who has followed the bar dispute.

Since Wilson's veto, the bar, which has continued to bring in voluntary contributions from some lawyers and drastically reduced dues from others, has laid off 45 people, rolled back raises and frozen 80 positions to save about $6 million. Far more drastic reductions will be needed if the stalemate is not broken, both sides in the dispute agree.

Even if a legislative compromise is found, the bar almost certainly will be forced to pare back and restructure.

"To me, it's frightening because the state bar performs so many essential functions," said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. "And I think it's entirely politics. The governor of California, in a very misguided way, has decided to make the state bar a target."

But the bar's critics say that it is the organization's leaders who turned it into a target.

"There are not a whole lot of people, even on the Democrats' side, who are willing to shed blood for the lawyers in the state bar," said Assemblyman Bill Morrow, an Oceanside Republican who has sponsored a bill to overhaul and shrink the bar. "They have a terrible reputation."

The bulk of the bar's $61-million budget is spent on lawyer discipline. The bar also evaluates judicial nominees, provides legal services for the poor, reimburses clients whose lawyers have stolen or mishandled their money, and writes the rules for professional conduct.

The critics, however, including many lawyers who share Wilson's disdain for the organization, cite the bar's high dues--which were $478 a year until the organization's legislative authority expired. The bar now has authority only to levy dues of $77 per year.

Critics accuse the bar of wasteful spending on excessive staff, lobbyists, fat executive salaries and conferences at plush resorts.

Governor's Veto Message

Wilson has accused the bar of losing sight of its purpose. "The bar is designed to act as an arm of the California Supreme Court with responsibility for regulating the legal profession. . . ." Wilson wrote in his veto message. "The bar has drifted, however, and become lost, its mission obscured."

In his veto message, Wilson complained that a group of bar delegates had endorsed more racial diversity in law schools--a call that he saw as an attempt to circumvent the state's ban on affirmative action. He also objected to endorsement of the right of same-sex couples to marry, a ban on discrimination against transvestites and transsexuals and a reduction in penalties for repeat child molesters.

Also aggravating Wilson was the state bar's endorsement of a bill that would have raised the amount of money that victims of medical malpractice could collect from health care providers.

Wilson's rage at the lawyers' group goes back many years. When he was a U.S. Senate candidate in 1982, a conference of bar delegates censured him for threatening a recall of state Supreme Court justices if they voted to overturn an anti-crime initiative passed by voters.

The governor also vented at the bar's judicial evaluation committee two years ago when it rated Janice Rogers Brown, Wilson's former legal affairs secretary, unqualified to serve on the state Supreme Court. Wilson appointed Brown anyway.

Both conservative and liberal critics of the bar agree with Wilson that it is bloated and bureaucratic. They cite a $900,000, two-year contract that the bar entered into for lobbying and the nearly $200,000 annual salary that the group pays its executive director.

Lawyers active in the bar view it as a "nice steppingstone to becoming a judge" and making "the right political connections," said longtime bar critic Peter Keane, chief assistant public defender in San Francisco.

Critics two years ago launched a referendum on whether to abolish the bar, but with just over half the state's lawyers voting, the bar survived. About 65% of the respondents opposed dismantling it.

The bar has escaped other brushes with death. In 1985, the Legislature refused for several months to allow the bar to collect dues because of its abysmal record in disciplining lawyers.

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