Bar members should elect president

by George M. Kraw

No matter what the outcome of the State Bar plebiscite, it is bound to be just the beginning of efforts to reform an association which has lost the confidence of many members. One important step to restoring trust would be the direct election of the bar president.

Currently, the president is elected annually by the members of the Board of Governors. This form of government limits participation in presidential campaigns to members of the board, some of whom themselves are appointed, not elected. Most other members learn about the plans of their new president only after he or she is elected.

This is unfortunate because a statewide presidential election is a better forum to vent issues facing the bar than referenda or court proceedings. Disputes over how the bar spends its money have led to seemingly eternal litigation between the bar and members who disagree with the calculation of the Hudson deduction. Other members ask why our bar dues are the highest in the nation. Some members believe that the bar pursues its own political agenda; others believe that it is too timid in addressing social issues.

A statewide election would allow these issues to be aired in a manner accessible to all members. Candidates would be forced to explain publicly their philosophical views as well as their plans for the bar. Matters of general concern to the membership at large rather than the special interests of individual governors would drive the election. At the end of the process, an elected president would speak with greater authority than one appointed by the board. An elected president's constituency would truly include the entire membership.

Moreover, the scrutiny of a public, contested campaign would weed out candidates who have the wrong temperament or background to be the head of the nation's largest mandatory bar.

How presidents conduct themselves in public is important and something that members should know before an individual takes office. A president whose ill-considered statements become the butt of jokes on The Tonight Show does not contribute to public confidence in our profession.

Some opponents of statewide election of the bar's president claim that it would unfairly tilt political influence to Los Angeles. But under the current system, presidents from L.A. frequently are elected by their colleagues anyway.

And even though a majority of the state's lawyers are in southern California, the bar's headquarters remain in San Francisco, where a $22.5 million building is being purchased in order to consolidate northern California operations.

An elected president will have to represent the entire state. An open election is unlikely to encourage regionalism or lead to moving the bar's headquarters, but it will force debate on questionable policy and business decisions and oblige candidates to take positions on them before they take office.

In the end, whether the bar remains unified or becomes a voluntary association, the members should elect the president. A more democratic form of government will better serve both the profession and the state.

George M. Kraw is a lawyer from San Jose.