Governor's ideas just a start

This editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 5.

"I am going to do all that I can to . . . bite my lip and refrain from kicking the State Bar in the teeth this morning." That's how Assemblyman Bill Morrow began his defense of Gov. Pete Wilson's plan to revamp the State Bar of California. Morrow's tone was perhaps not what Wilson intended, for it was the governor himself who nearly wrecked the state's system for policing errant lawyers. But the Oceanside Republican came pretty close to capturing the petty and polemical tenor of the debate over how California lawyers should be governed.

The State Bar receives no tax revenue; all its funds come from the mandatory dues that lawyers pay. But the governor must approve its dues, and Wilson touched off the crisis last fall by vetoing the annual dues bill, forcing the bar to shut down its lawyer-complaint line and to furlough hundreds of employees.

Having set the crisis in motion, Wilson has offered little more than worn cliches and lawyer-bashing on what he sees as the evils of the State Bar's structure and budget. Dues are too high, he says, and the bar's San Francisco digs too grand, its activities too political.

Three proposals that attempt to respond to Wilson's concerns have been circulating without the governor's support. Last [month] Wilson himself got down to specifics. In some respects, his plan is more moderate than his rhetoric of recent months might indicate. He would allow the bar to retain some protections for clients defrauded by their attorneys as well as programs to provide consumers with lawyer referrals.

But there are major problems with this package. Wilson wants to cut bar dues to $295, from $458 this year. He justifies this figure by looking to the Medical Board of California, whose physicians pay $300 annually. That amount should suffice for lawyers as well, Wilson says. Yet a heavy chunk of a lawyer's dues support the bar's lawyer discipline system, which handles three times the complaints referred to the medical board. Wilson counters that the new, lower dues would be sufficient to maintain the bar's highly regarded discipline structure.

Wilson also wants future governors to appoint most of the bar's directors. But he is not persuasive in arguing that the bar's self-governance has poorly served the public and lawyers and that political appointees would be better.

The stalemate over the State Bar has lasted far too long. The public is now effectively without recourse against bad lawyers. Wilson's proposals are a starting point for more serious negotiation in Sacramento - but they should not be the last word.