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California and the West

High Court Rejects Plea to Keep State Bar Afloat

Law: Justices decline to intervene in dispute between Gov. Wilson and the agency that regulates lawyers.

June 25, 1998|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Wednesday turned down a request by the beleaguered State Bar of California for an emergency order that would have provided money to keep the regulatory agency for lawyers afloat.

The 71-year-old agency is preparing to lay off about 80% of its staff Friday, a move made necessary by Gov. Pete Wilson's veto last year of a bill that authorized the bar to continue collecting $458 in yearly dues from each of the state's 130,000 practicing lawyers. Wilson has objected to politically liberal positions taken by bar leaders.

The layoffs will largely end the bar's ability to investigate allegations of misconduct against lawyers, leaving consumers with little recourse until the standoff between Wilson and bar leaders is resolved. So far, the state Legislature has been unable to agree on a compromise.

Without authorization to collect its full dues, the bar has been allowed to collect only $77 from each lawyer and has run out of funds. Bar leaders had hoped the high court would rescue them by ordering the state's lawyers to pay additional dues of $287 each.

But the court decided unanimously to stay out of the political fracas.

"The court recognizes the importance of core functions relating to the admission and discipline of attorneys carried out by the State Bar," wrote Chief Justice Ronald M. George, "and encourages the other two branches of government and the State Bar to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. . . ."

"In view of the importance of the issue and the apparent impasse among the various interested parties, the court has requested the chief justice make himself available . . . to offer assistance in the resolution of this matter."

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar was absent and did not participate in the decision.

The bar, which is run by a board largely elected by the state's lawyers, licenses and disciplines attorneys, writes rules of professional conduct, evaluates judicial nominees, helps provide legal services for the poor and reimburses clients whose lawyers have stolen or mishandled their money. After Friday, the bar will be run by a skeleton staff.

When bar leaders filed their emergency petition with the court, bar President Marc D. Adelman, a San Diego lawyer, conceded that the plea was a longshot but said: "A longshot is better than no shot at all."

Legislative supporters of the bar have been unable to obtain the two-thirds vote necessary to authorize dues to keep the bar fully operating this year. Wilson has said he will agree to a bill only if bar dues are lower and has argued that the governor's office should be able to appoint most of the bar's leadership.

The bar has many adversaries. Conservative activists have been angry at the organization since the 1986 campaign to recall former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and her liberal colleagues. The bar opposed the recall.

Meanwhile, many lawyers, including liberals, have ranted about the bar in recent years. Unhappy with the relatively high bar dues they must pay to practice law in California, lawyers have criticized the bar for excessive spending on staff, lobbyists and conferences.

The bar has been in chaos for several weeks. Many employees, expecting to be laid off, have already left and found jobs elsewhere. The 200 employees who will remain after Friday have been trying to figure out how they will work once most of their colleagues have gone.

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