California Bar Journal
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State Bar Court, after several years of controversy, bounces back
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legislation written by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton which changed the appointment process for three judges, transferring the appointing authority from the Supreme Court to elected officials and eliminating the position of one non-lawyer judge. Discounting fears that the new process might politicize the bar bench, the Supreme Court upheld the legislation and ruled that it retains the ultimate authority over attorney discipline.

James ObrienObrien said the new appointees are individuals of high integrity and have allayed his concern about politics. But he remains worried, he said, that “the appointing authorities may either reappoint or withhold reappointment based upon the nature of the rulings.” And, he added, there is a possibility “we won’t be so fortunate in future appointments.”

The new judges insist politics won’t enter into their deliberations.

Robert Talcott, named to the bar court by Gov. Davis, said he originally disagreed with the Burton legislation and did not think it would be upheld. But, he joked, “now that I’ve been appointed, I’m fully in favor of it.”

Robert TalcottIn a more serious vein, he acknowledged the perception that politics might play a role in the appointment process, but said the professionalism and integrity of the new judges help mute that concern.

Paul Bacigalupo, named to the bar court by Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, and Jodi Remke, appointed by the Senate Rules Committee, both offered assurances that they won’t be swayed by politics in their rulings.

“I believe I was appointed based on merit, experience and my commitment to the administration of justice,” Bacigalupo said. “I don’t think it’s a legitimate worry,” Remke added. “I’m not concerned I would be swayed by outside forces.”

Talcott, who served on the bar board of governors with Obrien and sat on the first selection committee for new judges, said the court is exactly what the board originally hoped for: “a highly professional discipline process that is fair to all of those who are affected by it or participate in it.”

Talcott, who has a long record of public service as well as private practice, said he considers serving as a bar court judge “probably the single most important job in the overall judiciary in the sense that it really is a public protection position.”

Paul BacigalupoBacigalupo, who came from private practice as a litigator specializing in employment, construction and business litigation, also has extensive experience as a judge pro tem, mediator, arbitrator and a hearing and settlement officer throughout Los Angeles County. “This is a fascinating opportunity to serve the bar and the community,” he said. “It has been my ambition.”

Remke acknowledged hearing concerns about the State Bar while working as a staff attorney for the Senate Judiciary Committee, but was not involved in any legislation affecting the bar. Instead, she said, she was interested in attorney discipline and the public’s perception about lawyers. Since joining the court two months ago, she has been impressed that the bar has tried to address legislative concerns dealing with funding, operations and streamlining.

Jodi RemkeShe and the other judges also said they are impressed with the professionalism of the bar’s prosecutors and the court staff, as well as with how seriously all parties seem to view disciplinary proceedings. Remke said the staff is extremely streamlined now and as the court’s caseload grows, staffing levels may have to be re-examined.

Talcott said he quickly noticed that about half the attorneys appearing before the bar court represent themselves and suggested they could benefit from outside counsel. Because disciplinary charges have such a serious potential result - disbarment, suspension and the loss of a lawyer’s ability to pursue a livelihood — Talcott suggested the creation of a group of volunteer attorneys to support those representing themselves. He acknowledged that a small number of lawyers represent respondents, but said economic issues often prevent those facing disciplinary charges from paying legal fees.

“I think in a truly fair system, if the Office of Trial Counsel is fully staffed, is full time and has investigators, it should be equally balanced on the other side,” Talcott said.

“The respondents just don’t know where to begin.”