SACRAMENTO — Foes of Democratic attorney general candidate Jerry Brown filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging his eligibility to become California's top lawman because he did not pay state bar membership fees in recent years and was declared inactive.
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court by supporters of GOP candidate Chuck Poochigian, a state senator from Fresno, contends that Brown failed to meet a state election law requirement that the attorney general be admitted to practice law in California at least five years immediately preceding election.
Although the former California governor and current Oakland mayor first passed his bar exam and gained approval as a practicing attorney in 1965, Brown on several occasions over the past four decades failed to renew his membership and was rendered inactive. Brown renewed his membership in 2003, before he announced his attorney general candidacy.
Brown's foes contend in the lawsuit that the longtime politician's failure to consistently retain his membership means he was not eligible to practice before the state Supreme Court, as required by the California government code.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Jerry Brown: An article Friday in the California section about a suit challenging Jerry Brown's eligibility to run for state attorney general said he did not pay state bar membership fees in recent years and was declared inactive. Brown paid the reduced fee required for inactive status.
"Since he wants to be the keeper of the rules, we think it's rather obvious that he should follow the rules," said attorney Thomas G. Del Beccaro, chairman of the Contra Costa County Republican Party and a plaintiff in the case against Brown.
"I don't view this to be a political stunt," added Beccaro, who is seeking a court order blocking any count of votes for Brown in the attorney general race. No hearing date has been set.
Brown, a graduate of Yale Law School, was admitted to the state bar in June 1965 and became inactive in 1992 as he made a third run for president. He reaffirmed his active status in early 1996 and became inactive again from 1997 to May 2003.
Ace Smith, Brown's campaign strategist, called the lawsuit "frivolous" and a "desperate political ploy" by a Republican who was trailing in the most recent public opinion polls by 15 points among likely voters.
"Chuck Poochigian should either withdraw this lawsuit or withdraw from the race for attorney general," Smith said. "Either he doesn't know the law or he's intent on subverting the legal process. In either case he's unfit to serve as attorney general."
Zack Wasserman, an attorney for Brown, said the suit had "no basis in fact or law."
"Inactive members may transfer to active status at any time upon request," Wasserman said. "They do not need any new qualifications, tests or oaths. They only need to request active status and pay the current fees."
Poochigian, whose campaign team declared it played no part in the lawsuit, noted that Brown had been on inactive status as an attorney 10 of the past 14 years.
"Neither Jerry Brown's political pedigree nor his sense of entitlement can help him resolve this problem," Poochigian said in a prepared statement. "He is not above the law, and it is in the public interest to have this important issue resolved by the courts now."
One legal expert questioned whether the lawsuit could derail Brown's chances.
Stephen R. Barnett, an emeritus law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, said, "This dog won't hunt."
Barnett framed the key issue as how to interpret the government code's requirement that an attorney general be "admitted to practice" as a lawyer at least five years prior to election.
"I think you interpret it to the effect that you're admitted to practice whether you're active or inactive," Barnett said, noting that Brown had been admitted to the California bar more than 40 years ago.
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