Serving the public interest

(This editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 2.)

The future of the State Bar of California is an issue that has raised hardly a glimmer of public interest yet has the potential for causing public problems. Legislative meddling with the legal community's regulatory body could cause a backlash that neither the governor nor lawmakers should want.

The State Bar determines, through the bar examination, who is qualified to practice law in California. It also investigates some 140,000 complaints from the public each year about attorney conduct, disciplining unethical or incompetent lawyers through suspensions or disbarment. Once plagued by a long backlog of complaints, the California bar's discipline system is now a model of professionalism and efficiency. Moreover, it is financed entirely from member dues.

It is the bar's many non-regulatory activities, however, that have become a focus for controversy. It has a hand in evaluating judicial candidates and sets requirements for continuing education to ensure that lawyers remain up to date on the law. It also comments on substantive changes in the law and, like other professional organizations, has weighed in on a variety of controversial political issues.

But the matter at hand, as in so many endeavors, is money. Bar membership is mandatory for the state's 161,000 attorneys. The state Constitution requires the legislature and governor to approve bar dues; capped at $458 last year, they are among the highest in the nation. Some lawyers and lawmakers, unhappy with the scope of the bar's non-regulatory activities, including resolutions it has adopted on such issues as affirmative action, gay rights and mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, have used the high dues to attack the bar and seek to curtail its influence.

Gov. Pete Wilson forced a showdown last fall by vetoing the annual bill setting bar fees, and this situation will leave the bar without funds as soon as April.

Three options are now before the legislature. Each cuts lawyers' dues and allows the remaining income to fund only regulatory activities. But they differ sharply on the definition of essential bar functions and the level of dues needed to sustain them.

The preferable approach is offered by Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys. His bill would lower dues but leave the bar with sufficient funds to maintain its critical discipline, certification and consumer protection activities. The others set dues so low that the bar would be faced with professional retreat, unable to protect the public from unscrupulous attorneys and other threats. Hertzberg's bill would better serve the public interest.