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Sun, sea lions, a shark and lawyers

By John Van de Kamp
President, State Bar of California

Former attorney general John K. Van de Kamp was sworn in as the 80th president of the State Bar
John Van de Kamp 2004-05 President

It began in fog, ended in sunshine and the sea lions continued to bark. The State Bar’s 2004 Monterey meeting was a success on many levels. Attendance was up —- as many as 4,500 showed up.

They came for different reasons: some to wrap up their MCLE requirements, others to debate with the independent Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations, a name that still causes confusion, still others to network and schmooze.

First, the fog. Driving from Paso Robles to Monterey reminded me of winter in Sacramento. The traffic was like that in the San Fernando Valley. Flights were re-routed to other cities, forcing bar officials to quickly rearrange their Bar Leaders Conference. Fortunately, our leaders had enough experience to pull it off and gamely discussed their relationships with their executive directors, a relationship that clearly differs with the size of the organization and the commitment of local volunteers, as opposed to the State Bar’s institutional structure. But there were some common threads: What executive director loves to have board members always on their backs? Who doesn’t want respect?

There were fine — and funny — speakers. Author Scott Turow was relieved to speak about novelists and the movies rather than his work on the Illinois commission on the death penalty. Political talking head Juan Williams spoke movingly about the importance of this month’s election, calling it one of the most important in recent times. His best line was about a young reporter assigned to write a pithy obit. It came in: “John Doe looked up the elevator shaft and saw it coming. Services are Monday at 10 a.m.”

The Brown sisters, Cheryl Brown Henderson and Linda Brown Thompson, did more than serve as a monument to the decision that bears their name. Both school teachers, they spoke eloquently about the events leading up to the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Their father, Oliver Brown, was the only man among several named plaintiffs. Although he was second alphabetically, the person ahead of him was Darlene Brown, so guess what? They jumped to him. This, of course, was during the Eisenhower administration. I’d like to think the woman ahead of Oliver Brown would be the named plaintiff today.

The sisters’ best story: A woman driver was stopped by a policeman on a highway. “You’re going too slow,” he said. The driver said, “I’m going 35, just as the highway sign said.” The policeman looked in the back seat and saw two elderly women who were shaking. “Anything wrong?” he asked. “Yes,” one replied. “We just came off Highway 185.”

There was fun. A special viewing of the great white shark in residence at the Monterey Aquarium (a lot smaller than previously envisioned) spawned more jokes. At my swearing in, I wrote my own: “I hope you noticed the professional respect extended to our bar members at the Aquarium last night by the great white shark.” At the evening gala, we saw Justice Ming Chin winning big time at the roulette table (“if only it had been real”) and Justice Carlos Moreno dancing up a storm. Well, not quite a storm . . .

There was decorum. It was like the days of old as the chief justice addressed the conference and convention attendees (including judges), and swore in incoming board of governors, CJA and young lawyer board members before a packed and attentive crowd.

After raising my hand swiftly to keep the program moving, I was admonished, “Not yet,” to great guffaws as the chief graciously welcomed me. My remarks highlighted board priorities, strong public protection, support of the judiciary, more member benefits, improved access to justice and programs leading to greater inclusiveness in the bar, particularly those coming from the African American and Hispanic communities.

The independent Conference of Delegates honored Sen. Bill Morrow, a former bar critic, for his support, debated issues ranging from support of topless sunbathing on state beaches (it passed overwhelmingly) to placing a moratorium on the death penalty (it also passed). The conference continues to offer a lively forum, given to hard work and occasional eloquence. It’s coming back but needs greater attendance and it needs diversity in the points of view expressed. Where were the DAs? The conference should be, at its best, a meeting ground for the different views of California lawyers. As good as the debate often was, it’s hard to say it’s representative of our nearly 200,000 lawyers.

The board of governors got down to work, spent a day orienting its new members, formalized committee and liaison assignments for the new year, approved its schedule and extended thank you’s to Tony Capozzi, Matt Cavanaugh, Russ Roeca, Windie Scott and Vivian Kral, our outgoing board members, for their effective leadership.

As I said in my swearing-in speech, quoting Albert Camus: “I shall tell you a great secret today. Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.”

Let’s go to work and let’s have some fun. We will even tell lawyer jokes.

As I left Monterey, the sea lions at the Fishermen’s Wharf were still carrying on. No professional respect there. But the sun was out.

• The complete text of John Van de Kamp’s swearing-in speech is available at

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