The Conference of Delegates, a body of
representatives of local and specialty bar associations which annually
debates changes in the law designed for the most part to improve the
administration of justice, has become a lightning rod for criticism
and now enjoys an uneasy relationship with the bar.
As a result of legislation, it is no longer
funded by mandatory bar dues and is instead supported by voluntary
contributions. It remains under the State Bar umbrella, but because of
its funding independence, some delegates believe the conference should
be permitted to adopt whatever political positions its members choose.
Last month's debate showed the board's
concern about offending lawmakers who, during the yearlong effort to
win funding to keep the State Bar alive in 1998, made clear their
opposition to what they perceive as the conference's liberal bent.
Dixon, himself a former conference delegate, said
he supports the 95 percent of its work devoted to "nuts and bolts"
legislation. "It's the other 5 percent that causes the State Bar
problems," he said. "They negatively impact our relationship with
the legislature . . . I think the bar should spin them off."
He said efforts to differentiate between the bar
and the conference have been largely unsuccessful and added, "I
don't care what disclaimer (the conference) puts on their
resolutions, they are equated in people's minds with the State
Conference chair Laura Goldin said the discussion
showed a lack of understanding about how the conference works, and she
tried to distinguish between conference resolutions and the bar's
legislative program. She also expressed concern that the board would
try to rein in the group's ability to take positions on issues of
law. The proposal in question "just asks the governor to look at the
death penalty to make sure it meets due process concerns," she
explained. "I think the bar should be able to take a position on due
The board indicated it is keenly aware of limits
imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 Keller decision, which
prohibits using mandatory fees to lobby or promote ideology. Several
disagreed whether the conference proposal fell within the bar's
"purview" or court's limits.
Judy Copeland of San Diego said she felt the
resolution was within purview. "Maybe this is a bad idea, it may
ruffle feathers," she said. "But 'it's a bad idea' isn't
in our rules. I would sure appreciate it if (the conference) doesn't
do this, but they have a right to do it."
Robert Persons of Chico said the debate boiled
down to censorship and that the conference "should be allowed to
talk about whatever they want."
But others felt the bar should steer clear of
Pointing out that Gov. Davis favors the death
penalty and is unlikely to give the proposal serious consideration,
James Herman of Santa Barbara questioned why the conference would make
it an issue. "The question is beyond purview," he said. "Why
can't we use some judgment?" Noting that recent conference
resolutions have dealt with "hookers, dope and death," Herman
suggested such issues will not help its credibility.
"As an organization," he said, "we want to
build credibility, and we're having trouble understanding why the
conference would push this if they want to build credibility."