California Bar Journal
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Bar board rebuffs conference on death penalty move
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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 Bar."

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 process."

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 social controversy.

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."