Bills vie to restructure bar

Staff Writer


Kopp’s bill, SB 1371, would abolish the State Bar and transfer admissions, discipline, minimum continuing education and the client security fund to the state Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, however, has maintained for several years that it does not want to administer any of these functions.

Observers are cautious in speculating on the future of the bar-supported Hertzberg bill, noting that the key point will be support from Republicans. If the governor gives it the green light, said one source, other Republicans may follow suit.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we have the outline of a bill that will draw consensus of the necessary two-thirds majority,” said Marc Adelman, president of the State Bar.

However, Adelman said that as each day goes by, he is painfully aware of the stress caused by the uncertainty of bar employees’ jobs and the future of the attorney discipline system.

“We’re starting to feel the pressure way down the road,” he said. “I think we are days and weeks away from layoffs and a shutdown of the discipline system.”

(Bar Executive Director Steve Nissen, who promised streamlining upon his arrival on Nov. 1, began trimming the bar budget with the elimination of 45 jobs for a savings of nearly $3 million. See Update.)

Short on money

Bar finance officials have said that with the governor’s refusal to authorize the collection of annual dues, the organization will be out of funds by April.

By statute, the bar is authorized to collect only $77 from each of the state’s 127,000 active attorneys, which was due Feb. 1. The bar must obtain authorization from the legislature to collect the remainder of the dues. Last year, most active attorneys paid $458 in annual dues.

In addition to sending all discipline and admissions functions to the Supreme Court, Kopp’s alternative bill would authorize the establishment of a voluntary bar called the California state lawyer’s association.

With Hertzberg’s bill, current core functions of the State Bar will remain in the mandatory portion, including the discipline system, admissions, continuing education, creation of professional standards, programs to improve the quality of legal services, the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE) and the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program.

The Hertzberg bill also would prevent the bar from spending dues on lobbying for legislation not related to the State Bar, regulation of the legal profession or the improvement of the quality of legal services to the public.

In addition, after July 1, 1998, the bar may not fund the Conference of Delegates. No funds may be used for the bar’s 18 practice sections after Jan. 1, 1999.

Governor angry

The conference, made up of representatives from local and specialty bars throughout the state, has especially drawn the ire of the governor.

Last year, members of the conference passed resolutions opposing castration for repeat child molesters, supporting reduced penalties for drug dealers and supporting same-sex marriages.

In addition, the governor was unhappy with a vote taken by the bar’s board of governors, supporting a bill to increase certain medical malpractice awards.

Since the governor vetoed the fee bill on Oct. 11, the State Bar Board of Governors has met numerous times either as a group or via telephone conference calls.

At a teleconference meeting in early January, board members were presented with a draft of Hertzberg’s bill and voted 10-4 to support it. The opponents were Judith Gilbert, Leon Goldin, Palmer Madden and Stephen Levine.

There were also four abstentions — public members Jo Ellen Allen, Wendy Borcherdt and John Morris, all appointed to the board by Gov. Wilson, and lawyer member Samuel Jackson of Sacramento.

Concerned that board members would become bogged down in the details of the Hertzberg bill, bar officials stressed the importance of supporting the principle of the bill in order to get it moving as fast as possible through the legislature.

Nissen, the bar’s new executive director, recommended support of the bill, saying, “This is not a normal, rational process. We are in a political dogfight and every day lost is greater momentum for competing bills, more jobs lost, more lives touched by negativity and undermining of the bar’s efforts.”

Abstention, not obstruction

Public member Morris said he abstained “because I didn’t feel the governor would sign that bill in its present form, and I didn’t want to be in favor of or opposed to legislation that I knew wasn’t going to be signed.” On the other hand, he said, “I didn’t want to halt the process.”

Morris’s fellow public member Allen said she does not support the bill, but abstained rather than voted “no” because she believes Adelman is handling the crisis deftly and doesn’t want to be an obstructionist.

As a member of the board’s contingency committee set up to determine how long the bar can operate with limited resources, Morris said the group is trying “to determine which services we can provide for how long.” However, he said, the task is difficult because “we don’t know what our revenue is.”

CYLA board member Levine was adamantly opposed to the Hertzberg bill because he said his organization would fall under the auspices of the voluntary bar. “This is 95 percent of what CYLA (California Young Lawyers Association) does,” said Levine, pointing out that his group already had to cancel its annual moot court due to a freeze on funds.

Board member Andrew Guilford of Costa Mesa said he supported the bill because in the final analysis he was comfortable “this is ultimately doable,” and that the bill’s inclusion of a dues cut was most important to the state’s lawyers.

Lamenting the bar’s demise

Lawyer member Madden of Walnut Creek lamented the fact that the bill signaled the end of the unified bar in California.

“My constituents [who are in favor of retaining the conference, continuing education and CYLA] want me to vote against it,” he said, “but my personal view is that it makes sense to divide these two.”

Also troubled by the ultimate demise of the unified bar, lawyer member Goldin of Los Angeles pointed out that the state’s lawyers had voted to keep the bar unified during the 1996 plebiscite. In addition, Goldin has made it very clear in past meetings that he would not support a bill that tampered with the delivery of legal services to the state’s residents.

Aware that the jobs of bar employees were at stake, Goldin said he was nevertheless “reluctantly” voting against supporting Hertzberg’s bill.

Lawyer member Gilbert, also of Los Angeles, tried to have the vote delayed a week, objecting to the lack of information regarding financial implications of the bill.

As of mid-January, bar officials said nearly 24 percent of the state’s attorneys had paid voluntary fees. Out of approximately 124,000 active members who were billed, 51,000 paid the mandatory fee of $77.

Of the 51,000, about 10,500 responded to Adelman’s plea to pay the full voluntary amount, while another 12,000 sent in differing amounts of voluntary contributions, bringing the total amount of fees paid to about $8 million.

Approximately 15,000 of nearly 32,000 inactive members, who pay $50 annually, had paid their dues by mid-January.

Although the monetary figures are significantly lower, officials said the percentage of attorneys paying their dues by mid-January was higher than previous years.

Reprieve for new admittees

Because of the uncertainty of the fee situation, recent new admittees were sent letters asking them to postpone payment of their dues until the legislature determines the final fee structure.

The letter was sent to about 4,100 new admittees who were advised to preserve the letter as proof of their admission to the State Bar in the interim.

Although Adelman said that part of the changes the bar is about to undertake are “exciting,” and would improve relationships with the legal profession all around, he would have rather gone about it in a different way.

“It was time to look at the mission and function of the State Bar,” said Adelman. “I just don’t think under this scope and these political circumstances it’s the best environment.”

Hertzberg’s bill is co-authored by newly elected Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, outgoing Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, D-Fresno, and outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer, D-Hayward.