The California Supreme Court will hear arguments
early next month on a petition seeking to overturn recent legislation changing the way
State Bar Court judges are appointed.
The high court agreed unanimously to review the validity of the new
law, which critics believe politicizes the court that disciplines California attorneys.
Three bar court judges sought review of SB 143 in January, arguing
that the new appointment process is an unconstitutional infringement upon the Supreme
Courts sole power to name the courts eight judges. They also argued that the
law intrudes upon the courts inherent authority over attorney discipline.
The judges asked the court to declare SB 143 unconstitutional because
it violates the separation of powers provision of the California constitution.
Sponsored by Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, SB 143 amends the
Business & Professions Code by transferring the appointment of three of five hearing
judges from the Supreme Court to the governor, the Senate president pro tem and the
Speaker of the Assembly. The measure also replaces the lay review judge with a judge who
is an attorney.
The judges who petitioned the court are James Obrien, presiding
judge, Nancy Roberts Lonsdale, a hearing judge, and H. Kenneth Norian, the review
departments lay judge. Lonsdale and Norian are seeking reappointment when their
terms expire in November.
Because the terms of three other judges also expire in November and
the appointment process usually takes up to nine months, the petitioners asked the court
to expedite the case. Oral argument is scheduled for May 3.
In other action, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to Burton two days
earlier when it reinstated a broader standard of review for appeals in bar court
SB 143 had also limited the oversight provided by the bar courts
review department, an attorneys last hope before a discipline recommendation goes to
the Supreme Court for action. The court reinstated a de novo standard of review, which
generally means an independent review does not have to focus solely on the record.
The court believes that the heightened standard of review
should provide more reliable and consistent disciplinary actions and recommendations by
the State Bar Court, the Supreme Court wrote.
The higher standard relieve[s] the court of the burden of
intense scrutiny of all disciplinary recommendations and provide[s] the court with a more
complete record should it decide to exercise its inherent power over any disciplinary