The governorís veto message

[Yes or No?] [This message was issued by Gov. Pete Wilson, an active California attorney, when he vetoed the State Barís fee bill on Oct. 11. As with the next guest editorial, clarifications are provided with editorís notes and/or bracketed inclusions.]

I am returning Senate Bill No. 1145 without my signature. This bill would authorize the State Bar to collect annual bar dues from its members for the years 1998 and 1999. The dues would be reduced by $20 and the annual amount frozen until Jan. 1, 2000. This bill also would authorize the State Bar to continue collecting an additional fee of $110 to be used exclusively for discipline augmentation during the same timeframe noted above. [Editorís note: The $110 discipline augmentation is not "additional"; it is incorporated in the yearly $458 fee which was requested.]

The State Bar is authorized to regulate the practice of law in California. It licenses, regulates, and has the authority to discipline nearly 122,000 [active] attorneys in California. The California bar is a mandatory bar in that all California attorneys must be members in order to practice law. Its fee-based budget exceeds $65 million annually.

Last year, a substantial minority of bar members voted to abolish the mandatory bar in favor of a voluntary model embraced in 10 other states. This difference of opinion as to the mandatory nature of the bar is at the heart of what might be charitably characterized as an almost chronic disharmony. Simply stated, some members believe that the bar cannot function effectively as both a regulatory and disciplinary agency as well as a trade organization designed to promote the legal profession and collegial discourse among its members.

In addition to the conflict inherent in the barís multiple functions, recent lawsuits illustrate the long held belief of some members that the bar is partisan, representing the views of the most vocal while excluding or opposing the interests of others.

Some of these less favored members were vindicated in 1990 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Keller v. State Bar of California 496 U.S. 1, concluded that the bar had impermissibly spent bar dues to promote political positions which did not comport with some of its members.

The bar has responded to Keller by conducting business as usual while offering a minuscule rebate to those opposed. Unappeased, several bar members (including one former and one current member of the legislature) sued this year, asserting that the bar had violated its membersí rights by taking positions on legislation with which members disagree.

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.

During the past year, the bar has, in no particular order:

Members of the California bar currently pay $478 in annual bar dues. [Editorís note: Members currently pay $458 in annual dues; the board of governors voluntarily lowered the dues by $20 for 1997.]

Two studies, one by the state auditor and another by a committee chaired by U.S. Court of Appeal Judge Arthur Alarcon, found a significant glut in the barís budget and called for a substantial reduction. In the case of the Alarcon committee, the recommended reduction was $79 per year. [Editorís note: An Alarcon subcommittee recommended bar dues of $450 the first year and $399 the second year in an effort to spur the bar to make reductions. The full committee made no recommendation.]

Indeed, California bar dues are more than twice the average of the other 49 states, which is approximately $200 per year. None of this appears to be of any consequence to the bar, but then the barís own small army of staff attorneys pays no bar dues at all.

At the end of a tumultuous legislative year, the State Bar last month conducted its annual convention in San Diego where delegates [to the Conference of Delegates] promptly got down to business and adopted resolutions:

It is difficult to draw a clear conclusion as to the direction of the California State Bar. Created in 1927, the bar is designed to act as an arm of the California Supreme Court with responsibility for regulating the legal profession and promoting fair and efficient administration of justice.

The bar has drifted, however, 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.

It is time for the bar to get back to basics: admissions, discipline and educational standards. I would look with favor upon a bill that required bar members to pay only for functions which were, in fact, a mandatory part of a responsible, cost-efficient regulatory process: a process which would require the bar, in word and deed, to scrupulously heed Thomas Jeffersonís admonition that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical."