California Bar Journal
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Bar-conference divorce is likely
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(CDCBA), it will incorporate as a nonprofit professional or trade association with the ability to lobby without limit. It will enter into a contract with the bar under which voluntary contributions for its work will be collected by the bar.

The bar will have to go to Sacramento to seek a change to Business & Professions Code 17533.6, which prohibits a nongovernmental entity from soliciting membership funds by mail that contains a seal, such as the seal of the State Bar.

The conference also wants to continue to meet at the bar's annual fall convention under a revenue- and cost-sharing formula and to recommend legislation it believes the bar should endorse. The bar may reject those recommendations if it chooses.

Bar Executive Director Judy Johnson said becoming an independent organization "is good in that the conference has felt shackled and we want them to be able to have their forum and debate the issues in a manner that doesn't harm the bar."

The proposed arrangement, she added, "protects the bar's integrity and allows the conference to pursue its agenda."

"It's clear we're working together to form a successful relationship," agreed conference chair Stephen L. Marsh of San Diego. "I think we're making progress."

In recent years, the conference has become a lightning rod for criticism among those California lawyers and legislators who consider its political positions too liberal. When he vetoed the bar's dues bill in 1997, former Gov. Pete Wilson singled out the conference's activities, as did the U.S. Supreme Court in its Keller v. State Bar decision prohibiting the use of member dues for political lobbying.

When the bar finally won a new funding authorization after its near-demise in 1998, the legislation included a provision forcing the conference to be self-funded, without benefit of member dues. At the same time, the bar board has restricted the conference's purview on many issues and its delegates have chafed at what they view as limitations on their freedom of speech.

As a non-profit trade association under IRS 501(c)(6), the conference would be able to engage in public education, advocacy, direct and grass roots lobbying and ballot measure activities.

A few things on the conference wish list made Johnson and bar President Karen Nobumoto cringe. For instance, the conference wanted a link on the bar's web site free of charge.

Because state law requires the conference to be independently funded, Johnson said, "we have to be very careful to avoid the perception that we are providing any administrative support for free." Added Nobumoto: "We are audit-sensitive here," a reference to the annual audit of the bar's books.

If the board authorizes the conference to pursue separate status and the bar to seek a statutory change, the conference is expected to return to the board in mid-June with proposed bylaws and articles of incorporation.

The conference's executive committee has been authorized to approve the group's new status, which Marsh said it likely to happen before the annual meeting in October.