Californians poorly served by the stalemate

(This editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on May 20.)

"You have reached the State Bar of California attorney-complaint hotline. We're sorry that we cannot take your call. Because of a lack of funding, the hotline has been closed. However, we will take written complaints regarding California attorneys and will hold them in our file without action until the funding crisis is resolved."

Eight months after Gov. Pete Wilson precipitated the crisis that has now left Californians without recourse against dishonest or incompetent lawyers, the State Bar is on the verge of collapse and the governor is largely silent about what he wants done.

Wilson does have a laundry list of complaints about the State Bar. He insists that the mandatory bar fees that lawyers pay -- $458 last year -- are too high, that its permanent staff is top-heavy and that some of its activities, including the evaluation of judicial nominees and analyses of proposed changes in the law, are inappropriately political.

The governor's complaints would have more validity if the bar were tax-supported, but it is not. All State Bar revenue comes from the lawyers themselves. Most of those funds support the bar's core functions: disciplining attorneys and administering the bar examination and continuing education requirements for attorneys.

But the bar is a creature of the state constitution, so the governor and legislature hold its purse strings. Last fall, Wilson essentially cut those strings by vetoing the State Bar's annual dues bill.

Lawmakers have scrambled to draft bills that restructure the bar, presumably more to Wilson's liking. One, by Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), is the bar's best hope for continuing its duties. But the amendments to that bill make clear that the debate over the bar is driven as much by politics as by the needs of the public or the profession.

For example, Hertzberg's bill, which passed the Assembly last month and is now before the Senate, would arbitrarily cut bar dues to $358, higher than some Republicans wanted, $100 lower than the current level. If the bar is bloated and poorly managed, as Wilson contends, then the state should audit its finances before making this whack at dues.

But, having provoked this crisis, Wilson now stands mum about specific changes he wants.

Meanwhile, the bar's complaint hotline remains shut down. By the end of June, nearly 500 employees will be laid off.

Californians are poorly served by this stalemate and puzzled by its cause. Now the governor has a responsibility to be specific and constructive about solutions to a crisis he created.