The State Bar of California
is no longer twisting in the wind under the baleful gaze of Pete Wilson and the Sacramento
lawmakers, but bad memories linger.
In 1997, the bar, which monitors and disciplines the states
136,000 practicing lawyers, was thrown into crisis when then-Gov. Wilson vetoed its annual
dues bill. Wilsons beef with the bar centered on what he deemed exorbitant dues.
Part of those dues went toward funding bar activities, including lobbying and legislative
analysis, that the governor considered inappropriate.
Although the bar is funded entirely by member dues it receives
no taxpayer funds the legislature and governor must approve the annual rates.
Through early 1998, Wilson stonewalled all legislative efforts to
compromise, draining the bars coffers by refusing to authorize dues collections. By
June 1998, the bar was forced to lay off most of its staff, including lawyers who
investigated and prosecuted complaints against bar members.
When Gray Davis succeeded Wilson as governor, he quickly agreed to
revive the bar. Dues have been lowered somewhat, and the bar will fund its advocacy
activities with voluntary contributions instead. Trouble is, the damage has been done.
While the bar was mothballed, complaints against lawyers piled up, its treasury ran dry
and laid-off employees found other jobs.
Although the bar is back in business, the climb to full strength will
be long and slow. The group of 285 prosecutors who went after incompetent or unethical
lawyers was slashed to 20, and new bar staffers will be less experienced and surely less
efficient. Headway has been made against a backlog of 8,000 complaints, but remaining
cases are formidable and new ones are being filed.
The bars travails and its slow return present an object lesson
for Gov. Davis and his successors: Its easy to tear down a valuable institution but
very hard to rebuild it.
This editorial apeared in
the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 23.