Historically, the California bar association has been the self-governed, self-regulating and self-financed arm of the legal profession. But with the recent spiteful veto of Gov. Wilson of the barís authority to collect fees from its members, the bar association might become part of a state agency or other politically appointed body.
Not only is the bar threatened with that possibility, its public protection programs and membership services are at risk, since 85 percent of the barís general fund supports the mandatory regulatory functions.
A few services of the public protection program are discipline enforcement, a consumer hotline that responds to 140,000 calls a year, the ethics hotline and professional competence programs.
All these services that serve the public will cease within months unless a way to continue them can be found. The association has been dedicating great effort toward solving the impasse, but the chief trial counsel is predicting that the bar may be forced to stop accepting consumer complaints as early as January.
The bar is urging all attorneys to voluntarily pay fees at last yearís rate, a sum of $458, as an interim measure.
Wilson is piqued at the bar association because it has publicly opposed certain hot political issues, such as the state law that caps damages in medical malpractice suits. But that was only one of his beefs with the bar.
The governor said he had vetoed the dues bill because of several of the barís political positions taken at its annual convention in September. On his list were measures relating to sex, drugs and university admission preference. He said they were resolutions "favoring legalizing same-sex marriages and thwarting the will of the voters relative to affirmative action at law schools."
The bar association answered Wilson saying: "It is the role of the bar and every attorney to seek improvements in the administration of justice, and occasionally the issues are political. However, the bar cannot and does not require members to subsidize political stands unrelated to the standard established in Keller v. the State Bar of California in 1990. The case ruled that the State Bar may take positions in matters that are necessarily or reasonably related to regulating the legal profession or improving the quality of legal services, even if the matter is political or ideological."
It seems to us that Gov. Wilson has acted irresponsibly by vetoing the barís ability to raise dues. By doing so, he has made a strong political statement of his own against the legal and professional rights of attorneys to view their opinions as an association within the limits set down by Keller.
The attorneys last year voted 2-1 in favor of continuing the bar association as mandatory, but Wilson said "a substantial minority" of the attorneys who voted wanted to abolish the mandatory bar association and make it voluntary. Since that effort failed, it appears the governor now wants to find another way to kill the organization.
Within any organization there will be disagreements, as a reflection of societyís differing views, but acceptance of the majority rule is the foundation of a democratic society.
Gov. Wilson engaged in overkill. To eliminate a pesky fly thatís annoying him, he used a bulldozer. If he doesnít like the associationís politics, he has a very effective bully pulpit as governor of the state.
The bar association is a necessary, self-governing institution with a long history of public service and effective programs for the legal profession. We urge the governor to rethink his actions.