Revised bar bill awaits action
Amendment would reduce dues to $358

Staff Writer


Without emergency legislation, which requires a two-thirds vote in both houses, the bar will be unable to collect any dues beyond the $77 per attorney assessed earlier and will be forced to operate with only a skeletal staff for the remainder of 1998. If passed by a majority in the Senate, the dues bill, AB 1669, would not take effect until next year, provided it is signed by Wilson.

The Assembly passed AB 1669 earlier on a majority vote but without amendments Hertzberg made late last month to reduce dues further, from a proposed $419 to $358; suspend the continuing education program pending an evaluation; restrict bar lobbying; and fund the judicial nominees commission with taxpayer dollars. An amended bill would come back to the Assembly.

"At this point (just prior to the Memorial Day holiday weekend), the ball is in the governor's court," said Hertz-berg aide Christopher Carlisle. "We're waiting to see what, if anything, additional he wants. We believe the bill comports with his veto message. We don't feel we can go any further."

State Bar President Marc Adelman said his repeated conversations with aides to Wilson, who vetoed the dues authorization measure seven months ago, thus far had produced no results.

"All the effort we have put in to try and solve the criticisms in the governor's veto message have gone for naught," Adelman said. "No matter what we do, we're not going to get the support we need for a two-thirds (urgency) vote without the governor's intervention."

Adelman, who has been circumspect throughout negotiations with legislators, accused some opponents of the bar of trying to destroy the organization instead of restructure it. "Every good faith effort we've made to restructure has been met with stony silence or with intemperate comments about the bar and attorneys," he said. He particularly criticized Assemblyman Bill Morrow's comment, "when you have them by the family jewels, their hearts and minds will follow," as an example of the base and degrading nature of the debate.

At press time, two senators were planning further amendments and the bill had not been brought to the Senate floor. Passage as an urgency measure requires the vote of every Democratic senator and those of four Republicans. The measure then goes back to the Assembly, where it faces serious opposition by Republicans.

Failure to enact emergency legislation virtually insures that the bar will get no cash infusion before next year, and will scale down to a skeletal staff, including admissions, membership records, certification, IOLTA and a few people to pay the bills.

As amended by Hertzberg May 14, AB 1669 reduces dues for most California lawyers to $358 a year, requires that "user fees" cover the entire cost of particular programs, reduces the annual attorney contribution to the Client Security Fund from $40 to $32, and requires all bar programs to maintain individual budgets.

The amendments also transfer funding for the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE) from the bar to the state and suspend the minimum continuing legal education (MCLE) program pending a comprehensive review.

Bar critics' primary gripe about the organization — that it uses mandatory dues to take political positions — was addressed in amendments that restrict lobbying to the duties, functions and responsibilities of the State Bar and require a two-thirds vote by the bar's board of governors before lobbying on any bill.

By month's end, the question of who should govern the bar posed another hurdle, with some bar opponents demanding a smaller, appointed board rather than one largely elected by the membership.

Adelman adamantly opposes a change in governance. The proposal to have politicians, or those appointed by politicians, appointing leadership in the judicial branch would only serve to make the bar more political, he said.

Anticipating that no additional funding will be available this year, the bar began shutting down most of its discipline operation, which consumes the lion's share of the bar budget, and about 470 employees were expecting to lose their jobs June 26. Another 30 will go on July 10.

Chief Trial Counsel Judy Johnson refined her original contingency plans to accept no consumer complaints about attorneys by agreeing to accept written complaints, although no action will be taken.

"All we're doing is giving them a place in line," she said. "From our point of view, once we receive a complaint, the backlog clock starts to run."

The complaint intake line, which receives about 140,000 calls a year, shut down at the end of April. Callers now hear a recorded message explaining how to file a written complaint. They are told they will be contacted "after the funding crisis has been resolved" and that they should expect long delays in the processing of the complaint.

Most lawyers were required to pay dues this year of $77, of which $27 went to the discipline budget. With layoffs, the 285-person staff, including prosecuting attorneys, investigators and support staff, will drop to 20.

Executive Director Steve Nissen said adequate funding is essential this year to maintain a "viable regulatory body. . . . unless you want to bankrupt the organization and force it to rebuild the discipline system all over again from scratch."