A chilling effect on the profession

[This editorial appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Oct. 16. As with the governorís veto message, clarifications are provided with editorís notes and/or bracketed inclusions.]

The State Bar of California, which handles the discipline of members who break professional rules of conduct, was all but disbarred by a furious attorney who happens to be the governor.

Demanding that the semi-public association "get back to basics," Wilson wrote in his veto message: "In recent months, as disgruntled members have leveled charges that the bar is bloated, arrogant, oblivious and unresponsive, the bar has promptly done its best to verify each indictment."

With that (and much more), the lame-duck Republican rejected a bill by state Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, that would have routinely extended the State Barís authority to require each of the 122,000 active lawyers in California to pay yearly dues of $458 or look for another line of work. After Jan. 1, no more dues.

Pete Wilson, J.D., had his reasons, including dismay at the State Barís imprudent $900,000 two-year contract with lobbyist Mel Assagai.

"The bar has drifted," the governor wrote, "and become lost, its ultimate mission obscured. It is now part magazine publisher, part real estate investor, part travel agent and part social critic, commingling its responsibilities and revenues in a manner which creates an almost constant appearance of impropriety."

The key words, of course, are "social critic." Dissident members earlier this year sued the State Bar for lobbying on issues with no direct relation to regulation of the legal profession, but a federal judge disagreed.

At last summerís State Bar convention, delegates [to the State Barís Conference of Delegates] defiantly adopted political resolutions urging legislators to support less draconian punishments for child molesters and drug dealers, to oppose efforts to end affirmative action in law schools, to permit same-sex marriage and to raise ceilings on medical malpractice limits.

Lawyers have an interest in laws. But, as Shakespeare put it in "The Comedy of Errors" (an apt reference): "He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil." Youíd think lawyers, of all people, would realize that ventures into legislative politics come with hellish risks, depending on which faction is offended.

Unless legislators agree by early next year to override Wilson, which seems unlikely, the bar again will be forced to rely on voluntary donations. Thatís how the organization survived when the dues bill was vetoed for similar reasons during the tenure of Gov. George Deukmejian. [Editorís note: The dues bill was not vetoed in 1985; the legislature refused to approve a dues bill until a plan was developed to clean up a backlogged discipline system which was adjudicated mostly by volunteers.]

The barís budget is about $66 million, which Wilson regards as excessive. But so was his response, which was timed in such a way as to block for at least three months any attempt at compromise. The governorís punitive action could have a devastating effect on the orderly conduct of the State Barís most important functions ó bar examinations, lawyer referral services, disciplinary proceedings and suspensions, pro bono programs, group insurance, California Young Lawyers Association, seminars, the ethics hot line and the California Bar Journal. [Editorís note: Bar exams are not funded by dues, but by application fees paid by law students. The Bar Journal supports itself with $1.6 million in advertising, subscription and MCLE test revenue, yet is considered part of the barís general fund].

In effect, the stateís legal eagles were told to bow to whatever rules are dictated by whoever happens to be governor. It raises a pertinent question: Why should politicians have this power? We urge the legislature to restore the State Barís dues-collecting authority while considering reforms. Lawyers, like members of other professional associations and labor organizations, should be allowed to govern themselves without fear of budgetary revenge.