California Bar Journal
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The stalemate is dissipating
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President, State Bar of California
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Ray MarshallWith a real sense of pride, I stood before the California Supreme Court last month to argue for emergency stopgap funding to help revive the attorney discipline system. The hearing, observers noted, was historic. Written comments were submitted by more than 50 parties, including Gov. Pete Wilson's representative, leading members of the legislature, national and local bar associations and individual lawyers concerned about the future of the bar.

Of this group, 15 speakers were allowed to present their cases during a 2 1/2-hour hearing. The length of time granted by the court for hearing of one single issue was extraordinary.

As I write this message to you, the members of the State Bar, we do not yet know the court's decision. But while the outcome is still to be determined, there was general agreement on three issues raised by the court:

The court has the inherent power and authority to impose an assessment to fund the discipline system;

The court should exercise that power now; and

There are no viable options, no other available source of money, to provide this emergency funding.

The State Bar framed well its argument of public protection, both in its briefs and in its extraordinary lawyering by attorneys Marie Moffat and Lawrence Yee from the bar's office of general counsel. In my 20 years of practice, I have had the good fortune to work in an excellent law firm and to witness excellent lawyers. Our State Bar lawyers met this standard of excellence, both in their work products and in their dedication to the task at hand. We can be very proud of them and, in fact, the entire team effort that staff throughout the bar provided to getting us before the Supreme Court.

While the $171 per active member falls short of full funding, it is the bare minimum to allow the bar to begin restoring its most critical public protection functions. Further, it will bridge the gap between now and next year when the legislature can act.

Which leads me to another historic event that occurred last month: the election. The political stalemate in Sacramento already shows promise of being eliminated. For the first time in months, there is a sense that, with the Supreme Court hearing and the recent election, the public protection crisis is beginning to turn around. Rather than being at the brink of death, the bar is perhaps at the edge of a new era. That era will be built slowly and carefully and must include the support and leadership of a bipartisan coalition. The future of the State Bar is not a party line issue; it goes beyond Democrats and Republicans to become a public issue. I will seek out every opportunity to involve both sides of the aisle as we start the necessary legislative process to reshape the bar.

Many ask me about the likelihood of a fully integrated bar. My vision is this: The State Bar that emerges in the coming months will not be an organization as it traditionally existed. All parts of the State Bar family - the sections, the conference of delegates, the State Bar foundation, the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission - must remain part of the family. For some, this will necessitate a restructuring of their relationships with the bar. For others, it will include the unavoidable reality, and opportunity, of becoming self-funded.

The past two years have been rough, but the lessons to be learned are unmistakable. We must change. Our members want it, the public expects it and the legislative leadership demands it. Ever since the layoffs at the end of June, we have alluded to the "ark" scenario as we struggled with a skeleton crew to keep the bar afloat. In the weeks ahead, I think we can throw out the ark metaphor and look for a new image. Personally, I like the idea of an eagle soaring, and even though there undoubtedly are more rough times ahead, I believe that we will fly again.