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California and the West

State Bar Stops Accepting Most New Complaints

April 30, 1998|MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The State Bar on Wednesday stopped accepting most new complaints from the public against unscrupulous lawyers, saying that its standoff with Gov. Pete Wilson over bar dues had left the organization practically broke.

"We have, in essence, lost 90% of our funding," forcing the suspension of the service, said the bar's chief prosecutor, Judy Johnson.

Only complaints that could lead to disbarment or serious suspension would be flagged for further investigation, she said.

Members of the public calling to report a bad lawyer heard of the shutdown on a message left on the bar's 800 number complaint line.

As a result of the funding crisis, Johnson said, "I will have to lay off 90% of my staff." Layoff notices, effective in July, have been sent to about 500 employees who are engaged in licensing California's lawyers, hearing complaints and disciplining members.

Lawyer discipline takes up the majority of the bar's budget. The bar said it gets about 140,000 calls a year on its consumer hotline, along with 86,000 written complaints and inquiries. The state has 128,000 practicing lawyers.

Its main source of funding was shut off after Wilson vetoed a bill last fall that would have continued the bar's authority to collect dues from members of up to $458 a year.

Wilson at the time said the bar was an oversized organization that did not serve members well and engaged excessively in politics.

Because of the standoff, the bar's discipline and regulatory functions "are going down the tubes and consumers are left without remedies," Johnson said.

But a spokeswoman for Wilson, Lisa Kalustian, said the bar's decision to shut down its primary function of disciplining lawyers was a "political maneuver on their part to cut this function first. We're not impressed."

In an attempt to cool the crisis and restore bar financing, a bill in the Legislature would scale back the amount of dues that lawyers pay and remove other objections that Wilson has raised.

But "more progress needs to be made" in addressing Wilson's concerns, Kalustian said, adding that "we do want the Legislature to keep working this out."

Some opponents of the bar want the organization to also drop a program that uses interest on lawyers' client trust funds to pay for legal services to the poor. Others favor dismantling the bar and turning lawyer discipline over to the state Supreme Court.

Wilson has criticized the bar in the past for supporting legislation to allow higher medical malpractice awards, for its Conference of Delegates' support of legalizing same-sex marriages and for recommending reduced drug sentences.

Without ability to levy dues, Johnson said, the bar is left without an operating budget. Its only other source of income, she said, is from a separate fund from payments by members of $77 a year.

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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