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Court Leadership on Dues Issue

November 12, 1998

"How can the public be adequately protected in the absence of any discipline system [for lawyers]?" asked state Chief Justice Ronald M. George. "I can't quite fathom that."

Neither can we. The State Bar of California, shut down since its funds ran out in late June, now has almost 7,000 complaints on file against lawyers, 2,000 of them made since June. Without operating funds, the bar can do nothing more than log these complaints and stash them away. Normally, the bar disciplines about 2,400 lawyers a year, with sanctions ranging from a written reprimand to disbarment. But for now, unscrupulous or incompetent lawyers go unchecked.

This shameful breakdown is the result of a yearlong stalemate between Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature over the future direction and funding of the state bar. The big losers have been the 400 bar staffers who have lost their jobs and the public, which has lost a key consumer watchdog.

Concern about the demise of the bar's praised discipline staff prompted petitions, from both Wilson and bar leaders, asking the California Supreme Court to restore that system until the new Legislature can act. At Monday's unusual hearing, the court asked for guidance from a dozen academicians, bar officials and others on the scope of its legal authority to make that move. The justices' questions indicated they may well step in.

The court's leadership and monitoring would be most welcome, as would court-ordered interim dues adequate to the task. Gray Davis' election as governor promises a less partisan resolution of this unnecessary crisis, which began as a debate over the scope of the bar's activities. Davis said he's committed to "an acceptable and reasonable resolution," but that outcome is still months away, if not longer. Legislation passed in the coming year would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2000. An urgency bill could take effect sooner, but passage would require a two-thirds majority, a longshot.

The court is expected to decide within the next few weeks what it will do. If it approves the petitions before it, lawyers will get their dues bills before the end of the year and the discipline system could begin to ramp up within months. When that happens, Californians who hire a lawyer can breathe easier.

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