The State Bar and its leaders deserve another chance

(This editorial appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 25.)

The State Bar of California is hardly a paragon. It is a large bureaucracy with the brass to spend its members' dues on political lobbying that often has nothing to do with the legal profession. Its former disinclination to police its own was scandalous.

But the flaws of the State Bar are not grievous enough to justify shutting it down, which is essentially what will happen if the legislature and Gov. Wilson do not take action to reverse Wilson's veto of a bill that authorizes the State Bar to demand dues from its members.

"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," Wilson wrote in his October veto message, and many agreed.

But the bar serves a number of vital functions that benefit California consumers, including overseeing discipline for all lawyers in the state and reviewing judicial nominations.

A little over a decade ago, the State Bar's record in regulating incompetent or corrupt lawyers was dismal. Besides a 4,000-complaint backlog, investigations were few and punishment was lax.

That is no longer true. Losing the now effective discipline arm of the State Bar would throw away years of hard work and improvement.

The bar also provides important consumer services that would not likely be replaced if it were to fold. State Bar dues go toward legal services for the poor and for maintaining a fund that reimburses the victims of crooked lawyers.

A bill (AB 1669) by Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, would both maintain what is valuable in the State Bar and attempt to correct its deficiencies. The measure, which has moved to the Assembly floor, would cut mandatory dues by 10 percent and limit dues money to lobbying relating only to administration of justice issues.

The Hertzberg measure addresses some of the legitimate complaints voiced by Wilson and others without decimating what is basically a good organization.

The State Bar leadership deserved and needed a lesson in humility and fiscal prudence. The legal organization's officers need to convince lawmakers and the governor that it got that lesson. But California consumers will be the losers if the State Bar is allowed to shut down.