Bar operations pared to barest essentials
Services shut down as staff cut by 400+

Staff Writer


difficult days in the long history of the State Bar.”

Said Executive Director Steve Nissen: “The impasse has gone well beyond the important issues raised by the governor’s veto. The public now perceives that lawyers are unwilling to pay to police themselves and that politicians are unwilling to come to an agreement to protect consumers.”

The day before the layoffs, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, who set the funding crisis in motion with his October veto of the bar’s fee bill, said the governor would not negotiate the organization’s future in public.

At the end of June, Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks, continued to push for passage of AB 1374, an interim measure to require active attorneys to pay $100 in dues solely to support discipline.

His original measure, AB 1669, which divides the bar into mandatory and voluntary units and sets dues at $358, has passed the Assembly and awaits action by the Senate. But legislators in both houses remain far apart, still divided on issues of governance, lobbying and the amount of dues.

When it became clear that neither side in Sacramento would budge, the bar also made an 11th-hour appeal to the Supreme Court to order Califor-nia lawyers to pay dues of $287.

In a 19-page letter, Adelman said the bar will continue to seek legislative action, but the impasse “threatens with immediate harm the public which the bar’s operations are intended to protect and benefit.”

The court denied the request, but offered the services of Chief Justice Ron George to serve as a mediator.

“The court recognizes the importance of the core functions relating to the admission and discipline of attorneys carried out by the State Bar and encourages the other two branches of government and the State Bar to resolve this matter as quickly as possible in light of the interest of the public and the potential impact on the operations of the court of the bar’s inability to carry out its disciplinary functions,” the court said.

The justices also unanimously denied without comment a petition by a group called Citizens and Attorneys for Legal Reform which requested that the court order the legislature to authorize the bar to collect dues.

Most severely affected by the budget crunch is the bar’s discipline system, whose staff dropped 91 percent, from 283 to 20. With its complaint intake line shut down since April, the discipline office is handling primarily cases nearing trial.

The State Bar Court began to send formal orders abating the court’s caseload until further notice. Scott Drexel, the court’s administrative officer, said the action was a result of the layoffs in both the court and the prosecutor’s office.

“Until the fee bill issue is resolved,” he said, “the State Bar Court will use its limited resources to dispose of those cases that are already under submission, and to continue to process and hear a few of the most serious matters.”

About 700 disciplinary matters are pending before the court, and all but 50 will be frozen, Drexel said.

In addition to the layoffs, executive director Nissen ordered other cost-saving measures, including reducing his own salary by 25 percent during the next 60 days.

The lease for the bar’s Sacramento office was to be terminated by early this month, and bar funding for the Volunteers in Parole (VIP) program, which mentors troubled youth, will be discontinued.

Funding for alcohol and drug dependency programs, hailed as lifesavers for many addicted attorneys, also will be slashed, although the program directors say they will try to offer minimal services.

Only the bar’s admissions program, the Client Security Fund and the legal services trust fund program, all independently funded, remain at full strength, but even the latter was jeopardized by month’s end after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a similar Texas program. (See Update on p. 1.)

Since Wilson vetoed the dues authorization, the bar has been able to collect only $77 from each California attorney. With fewer than 25 percent responding to a plea to pay voluntary dues, the bar is nearly out of money.

Much of the difficulty in the legislative negotiations has been the changing nature of the issues.

When Hertzberg introduced AB 1669 in January, the key question from the governor’s office was the amount of dues, according to Adelman.

But at the Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing on the measure in March, Republican opposition centered on lobbying restrictions.

By May, the issue was governance.

A last-minute proposal to resolve that question with a 17-member board of governors — seven appointed by the Supreme Court, six by the governor and two each by the Assembly and Senate — did not succeed.

In addition to Hertzberg’s proposed legislation, two other bills and numerous amendments have been introduced in the legislature.

Only AB 1669 made it through one house, but Hertzberg had to remove the urgency clause, which required a two-thirds vote, to get the measure through the Assembly.

Assemblyman Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside, offered a measure to set dues below $300 and eliminate many bar programs, including MCLE, the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, the client trust fund and Client Security Fund.

That bill went nowhere.

Sen. Quentin Kopp, I-San Francisco, authored a bill to abolish the bar entirely and move admissions and discipline to the Supreme Court. His bill has not gotten out of committee.

The governor offered a series of reforms in May, which Kopp has amended into his bill.

They include annual dues of $295, a smaller board of governors appointed primarily by the governor, restrictions on lobbying and the use of the legal services trust fund, and shifting the State Bar Court’s duties to the Supreme Court.