California Bar Journal
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No bar, no discipline
Court must reimpose system to monitor attorneys

This editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 14, the same day the California Supreme Court announced that it would hold a hearing on the bar's petition in Sacramento on Nov. 9.

Not even its harshest critics can be pleased with the damage done by the demise of the State Bar of Califor-nia's discipline system. Four months ago, California had a vigilant and highly regarded system to monitor and punish wrongful behavior among the state's 130,000 practicing attorneys. Today, most of the staff that fielded the 140,000 complaints about lawyers lodged annually are gone, laid off in late June when the bar ran out of money.

The stack of pending complaints is mounting daily, and it's fair to say that unscrupulous lawyers - the ones who take their clients' money and deliver nothing in return, the ones who skip out on court-ordered restitution to former clients and the ones with drug or alcohol problems - are getting a free ride in California, with almost no one at the bar offices to punish them for their ways.

Gov. Pete Wilson, angered by what he considered political lobbying activities by the bar, precipitated the crisis by vetoing the bar's annual dues bill a year ago, then foiled legislative efforts to fix the problem until it was too late. Now, with the legislature adjourned, both the governor and leaders of the bar have petitioned the California Supreme Court to step in on behalf of the public and restore the discipline system. The court declined that request a few months ago, but with problems mounting it should promptly intervene.

The state constitution gives the high court final say over lawyer discipline, and the court has regularly reviewed the bar's recommendations for suspension, disbarment and other penalties against lawyers who fail to follow the rules.

What can the Supreme Court do? Whatever it wants. The best approach would be for the court to authorize the bar to collect dues immediately from California attorneys at a rate the court deems adequate to hire back the investigators, prosecutors and judges who staffed the discipline system. That amount would be much closer to the $171 per lawyer that bar leaders suggest be paid this year than the $77 lawyers are paying on a stopgap basis. Last year, lawyers paid dues of $458, with a significant portion allocated to enforce discipline.

With a full docket of cases, Chief Justice Ronald M. George and his Supreme Court colleagues may be hesitant to step into this political tangle. But there are compelling reasons to act.

Even if the legislature moves promptly when it reconvenes in January, a new proposal to restructure the bar probably would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2000. An urgency bill would speed the process, but passage requires a two-thirds vote, an uncertain proposition.

By acting now, the court could start to undo some of the damage. As it is, the bar will need time to regroup and train new staff. Moreover, by setting interim dues at a level adequate to maintain discipline, the court might short-circuit bickering over how much money is enough when the legislature reconvenes.

The court holds its weekly conference today (Oct. 14). Repairing the State Bar's broken discipline system should top the agenda.