California Bar Journal
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New laws strengthen consumer protection, beef up court system
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Continued from Page 1
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AB 1761

“Paralegals” — now defined by law — will be required to work directly for an attorney and meet certain qualifications.

No longer can an attorney simply bestow such a title on any assistant. Nor can independent paralegals continue to call themselves such — unless they work for an attorney and meet the new standards for paralegals. Instead, they must use a different title, such as “legal document assistant.”

The legislation, AB 1761 (Brewer, R-Newport Beach), also establishes the nature of a paralegal’s job and requires paralegals to fulfill continuing legal education requirements to maintain their title.

SB 1782

SB 1782 (Morrow, R-Oceanside) focuses on the issue of attorney reciprocity. The legislation expresses the legislature’s desire that the Supreme Court adopt admission rules that would allow out-of-state attorneys to join the State Bar without taking the California bar examination under certain circumstances.

The legislation also requests that a Supreme Court-appointed task force recommend the circumstances under which an out-of-state attorney could receive reciprocal admission.

SB 2153

In the interim, the legislature recently authorized, through the enactment of SB 2153 (Schiff, D-Pasadena), a five-year extension of the State Bar’s out-of-state attorney arbitration counsel program, which allows out-of-state attorneys to seek permission to represent clients in California arbitration proceedings.

AB 1367

The State Bar’s fee bill, AB 1367 (Schiff, D-Pasadena, and Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys), authorizes the bar to collect $395 in fees next year from most active attorneys. The measure also continues the scaling option for attorneys whose annual earnings fall below $40,000.

In November, however, the State Bar’s board of governors voted to voluntarily cut attorney fees by $50 in light of a $15 million budget surplus. (See story on page 1.)

SB 1857

A series of bills bolsters the court system. Gov. Gray Davis recently gave his stamp of approval to legislation creating 32 new judgeships — 20 trial and 12 appellate.

Previously, only 26 new judgeships (less than 2 percent of the judges) had been added in the 13 years leading up to the legislation (SB 1857, Burton, D-San Francisco, and Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys).

In contrast, general jurisdiction filings in the trial courts have increased more than 40 percent in the past two decades, while complex, resource-intensive cases, such as criminal felonies, have jumped more than 190 percent.

AB 1955

New legislation also offers a financial incentive to judges who remain in public service after reaching their maximum retirement benefit level. AB 1955 (Migden, D-San Francisco) authorizes 20 percent bonuses for such judges, as long as the judge is at least 60 years old, has 20 years of experience and remains on the job for an additional three years.

AB 2866

And for the first time since 1957, California jurors got a pay raise this year — from $5 a day to $15. AB 2866 (Migden, D-San Francisco) earmarks $19.2 million for the higher fees.

Earlier this year, Chief Justice Ronald M. George noted that the jurors’ $5 rate was among the lowest in the nation. Addressing the legislature in March, George pointed out that the juror response rate in some California counties has dropped to as low as 6 percent.

“Could it be that our failure to treat jurors with respect and to show our appreciation of their valued service has led to their lack of interest in the process?” he asked. 

Other jury-related legislation focuses on attorneys who investigate allegations of jury misconduct. When interviewing former jurors, investigating attorneys will now have to inform the juror of his or her absolute right not to discuss deliberations or the verdict.

AB 2567

In addition, AB 2567 (Jackson, D- Santa Barbara) requires investigating attorneys to disclose their connection to the case and the interview topic.

AB 2069

Also catching the attention of the legislature this year were conflict-of-interest issues arising out of a 1999 decision (State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co. v. Federal Insurance Co.).

AB 2069 (Corbett, D-Hayward) calls for a State Bar-conducted study into the “legal and professional responsibility issues” that may arise when an insurer retains an attorney to represent an insured and that attorney is subsequently retained to represent someone else against another party insured by the insurer. A report and any recommendations for changes to the Rules of Profes-sional Conduct are due next summer.

SB 1342

In the area of criminal law, Gov. Gray Davis recently signed what has been touted as landmark legislation expanding the use of DNA testing.

Under SB 1342 (Burton, D-San Francisco), imprisoned felons can request DNA testing in seeking a new trial. (The request would have to meet certain criteria.)

AB 2814

Another bill — AB 2814 (Machado, D-Linden) — allows law enforcement to compare a suspect’s DNA profile with evidence from unsolved crimes. In the past, such DNA sampling has been limited to convicted criminals.

“DNA testing will assure to all that the guilty are truly guilty and the innocent truly innocent,” the governor said in a statement. “Moreover, those of us who believe in the death penalty have a special burden to ensure that those convicted of capital crimes are, in fact, guilty.”

Unsuccessful measures

Among this year’s derailed bills was a proposal seeking to shut down so-called “trust mills.” The bill — AB 1138 (Strom-Martin, D-Santa Rosa) — would have prohibited the unauthorized practice of law in connection with living trusts and other estate planning services.

In addition, Gov. Davis vetoed a proposal to eliminate the “baby bar” (the first-year law students examination, whose passage is required of students attending California’s unaccredited law schools.)

In vetoing AB 1042 (Cedillo, D-Los Angeles), the governor pointed out that the baby bar was established “to protect those individuals ill-suited for a legal career from expending further time, money and effort, and to provide others with the opportunity to measure the quality of the education from unaccredited law schools.”