California Bar Journal
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Separate conference is approved
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sent to all California lawyers.

"The fundamentals of the current relationship will basically be preserved," said Executive Director Judy Johnson, explaining that the bar will continue to collect contributions to the conference and the conference will hold its yearly meeting in conjunction with the bar's annual convention. "We will have an arm's length contractual relationship," she added.

The major change in that relationship, one the conference has been seeking for several years, will be the ability to lobby in Sacramento, unfettered by court rulings which prohibit the State Bar from using member dues to advocate political positions.

"Our purview rules will be free of Keller," said Stephen L. Marsh, chair of the conference executive committee, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling more than a decade ago in Keller v. State Bar. Together with the more recent Brosterhous v. State Bar decision, the rulings have fundamentally changed the way the bar can spend mandatory member dues, limiting those expenditures to activities within its core mission.

The limitations were codified when the legislature required the conference to be funded voluntarily, eliminating the guarantee of a member-provided budget. Despite being self-funded, however, the conference has been subject to State Bar purview rules which restrict positions it can take on legislation.

"A vote for this is a vote for free speech," said John Van de Kamp, a governor representing Los Angeles. A longtime member of the conference, the former attorney general acknowledged the group has "gone astray a few times and gotten the State Bar in trouble," but he called the split a good compromise that reflects "the realities of the day."

It was those very realities, however, that made the move somewhat bittersweet for the many board members whose bar activism includes participation in the conference.

San Diego governor Judy Copeland, a longtime conference delegate, said she accepted the separation only reluctantly.

"I find this very sad," she said. "Whatever judge decided the Keller case, I hate him. Whatever judge decided Brosterhous, I hate him. I hate this mentality that we don't view society as a whole."

The conference was created more than 70 years ago as a means for the State Bar to obtain input from local, minority and specialty bars about its legislative program. Attorneys with expertise in particular areas of the law serve as delegates and provide analysis and advice to the bar and the legislature as part of the law-making process. Most conference input deals with mundane nuts-and-bolts issues and hundreds of its resolutions have been enacted into law.

In recent years, however, its liberal positions on controversial issues ranging from gun control to the death penalty to apartheid have raised the hackles of some bar members and lawmakers, and its occasional forays into the political arena transformed it into a lightning rod for critics.

When Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the bar's dues bill in 1997 and singled out the conference's activities in his veto message, bar leaders got the message and started down the road to separation.

The resolution approved by the board authorizes the conference "to pursue incorporation of a new nonprofit mutual or public benefit corporation, entitled the Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations." It most likely will incorporate as a nonprofit professional or trade association, which will enable it to lobby without restriction.

The bar and the conference will enter into a five-year contract whose details are yet to be ironed out, but it is likely they will share revenues from the annual meetings (which are planned five years in advance). The bar will seek legislative authority to continue to collect voluntary contributions for the conference, an arrangement Marsh said is non-negotiable. California attorneys now can check off a box on the dues statement which provides a voluntary $10 contribution to the conference.

Last year, 14,800 lawyers (9 percent of the membership) contributed $148,418 to the group. So far this year, Johnson said, 17,109 of the state's attorneys, an increase of 1 percent, have checked the box, providing donations of $186,498.

That arrangement brought an objection from Los Angeles governor Pat Dixon, who questioned why the conference should be on the bar's dues bill if it is going its own way. "I think if they are separate and apart, they should collect their own dues," he said.

But Marsh said delegates are worried the conference would go out of business if left to its own devices, and several board members said the bar has a responsibility to help the fledgling nonprofit.

"We want a solution where the conference can be independent yet survive," said President Karen Nobumoto, who has led the drive for separation. "We're not trying to push them out there so they'll sink."

Added public member Jan Green, "It's the fiduciary responsibility of the bar to help you."