Getting closer to the cliff's edge

(This editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 26.)

The game of brinkmanship that some legislators and the governor have engaged in with the State Bar of California is now reaching the cliff's edge. The bar is within months of going out of business.

If it does, the blow will be felt less by lawyers than their clients and the public.

The bar is an unusual hybrid. For the most part, it is the regulatory entity that determines the qualifications to practice law and that disciplines errant lawyers.

But it is also an advocacy group for its members' professional and political interests.

The two parts co-exist awkwardly at times, which led to the current imbroglio.

Everyone who practices law in California must be a member of the bar and pay dues of more than $400 per year.

Each year, the bar must get approval from the legislature and the governor to collect the dues.

In October, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the dues bill.

Reflecting dissatisfaction expressed by some lawyers, Wilson said the bar is "bloated, arrogant, oblivious and unresponsive."

But it was clear that the governor also was peeved at the bar for the political positions it had taken over the years, such as defending liberal Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, opposing capital punishment and supporting gay rights.

Financially, the bar has been running on a reserve tank since the veto, but it's getting down to the fumes. The bar will run out of money in mid-June. Because it must give employees 60 days' notice if they are to be laid off, it needs to know its future by mid-April.

The Assembly can assure that future when it considers a bill by Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, which it should pass and send to the Senate.

The Hertzberg bill severs the bar into two parts.

One part, financed by slightly reduced mandatory dues, would continue the regulatory functions.

The second, voluntary part could take whatever political positions its membership desired.

Other bills, which the legislature should reject, would dismantle the bar more dramatically, leaving consumers without protections that the State Bar has done a good job of providing.

About half the bar's 700 employees are involved with complaints about lawyer misconduct (there are some 140,000 per year), investigating and prosecuting as appropriate.

Before the bar beefed up its disciplinary function a decade ago, paid for with a stiff dues increase, the backlog of cases exceeded 4,000.

The bar also administers a fund that reimburses clients cheated by dishonest lawyers, and another that provides legal services to indigent persons.

Both cost the public nothing. The Hertzberg bill would preserve them.

Further stalling on a dues bill for the State Bar would not punish lawyers — it would punish the public.