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State Bar declines to move convention location despite hotel boycott pressure

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Despite months of pressure to honor a boycott of the San Diego hotel where the State Bar will hold its yearly convention, the State Bar Board of Governors last month declined to cancel its contract and will go ahead with plans for the September meeting. “We don’t have a choice,” bar President Holly Fujie said flatly.

Plans to hold the meeting at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego have come under fire because of the hotel owner’s support of Proposition 8, the November ballot measure that eliminated same-sex marriage rights in California. Because Doug Manchester, owner of the Manchester Financial Group, contributed $125,000 to the Yes on 8 campaign, the hotel has been targeted by opponents of the measure.

Several legal entities, including various bar associations, the American Association of Law Schools and the Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations have either cancelled scheduled meetings at the hotel or threatened to boycott the bar’s Annual Meeting. In addition, numerous groups have asked the bar board to cancel its contract, but after two formal meetings to hear advice from its lawyers, the board took no action for both legal and economic reasons.

Fujie, who has expressed her personal opposition to Prop. 8, explained that the State Bar is prohibited from spending member dues to support or oppose politically divisive activities. To cancel the Annual Meeting and participate in a boycott of the hotel based on the owner’s position on a ballot measure would unlawfully thrust the bar into the political arena, she said.

In addition, the bar would incur a cancellation fee of more than $425,000 if it were to renege on the contract, which was signed five years ago. Additional cancellation fees would be incurred for other planned events, including joint programming with the Judicial Council, which has scheduled its yearly meeting at the same time.

The board’s decision, reached two days after the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the appeal to overturn Prop. 8, was uncomfortable for several members, who went to some length to express their support for individual rights. Richard Rubin, a public member from San Francisco, noted that “it is highly unlikely this issue will be resolved, even after the (Supreme Court) ruling. The issues will continue and we will still have to confront ways of dealing with them.”

Bonnie Dumanis

Bonnie Dumanis, the openly gay district attorney of San Diego and a member of the bar board, said the decision to uphold the contract was reached irrespective of its members’ personal feelings about same-sex marriages. Every board member is a fiduciary for the bar, she said, and in a time of economic crisis, “the budget is of great concern to us. We feel we’re between a rock and a hard place.

“It’s an economic decision to continue with our legal obligations, but that doesn’t say anything about our personal feelings.”

Dumanis explained that the bar is constrained by two court rulings — the 1990 Keller v. State Bar of California decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that prohibited expending mandatory member dues to fund political or ideological activities unrelated to professional regulation, and the 1999 Brosterhous v. State Bar of California finding that the bar violated the law in 1991 when it used member dues to fund activities the court ruled were ideological and divisive. The restrictions prohibit the bar from funding its lobbying and elimination of bias activities with mandatory dues.

Payment of cancellation fees if the bar breaks its contract with the hotel would come from mandatory dues, an impermissible use of funds for a governmental judicial branch agency. As the administrative arm of the California Supreme Court in matters related to discipline and admission of attorneys, the bar is required by statute to hold an annual meeting.

Dumanis said she will not attend any functions at the hotel, but will attend convention meetings held elsewhere.

The Conference of Delegates, which is separate from the State Bar and not constrained by Keller or Brosterhous, moved its meeting to the nearby Hilton San Diego Bayfront after a survey found a quarter of the delegates would not attend the bar meeting at the Manchester hotel. Ninety percent said it would be appropriate to move the conference meeting.

Groups objecting to meetings at the Manchester Grand include Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, the Bar Association of San Francisco, the Santa Clara County Bar Association and the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association of Los Angeles. The Beverly Hills Bar Association began the calls for a boycott in January when President Nancy Knupfer asked the bar to move its meeting. “Our leaders are dismayed to learn that the State Bar conference will be held at a location whose ownership — despite supporting the repudiation of basic human rights — would profit from our members,” she wrote in a letter to Fujie. “The very idea of that would certainly cause pain to many of our members.” An online petition demanding a change of venue has garnered about 100 signatures.

Voluntary bar associations do not operate under the same legal constraints that govern the State Bar, a public agency that collects mandatory dues.

The boycott is led by Californians Against Hate, a non-profit organization that calls attention to donors to the Yes on 8 campaign, and UNITE HERE, the local hotel workers union. The Manchester Grand is non-union.

A spokesman for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, the management company that operates the hotel, said Manchester’s “personal statements and actions are not reflective of the inclusive, diverse culture our employees enjoy.” Salvador Mendoza, Hyatt’s vice president for diversity, added that the hotel offers domestic partner benefits and has “a strong track record of enforcing non-discriminatory policies.” It also has contributed financially to a number of gay-friendly causes.

Some Hyatt shareholders also contributed to the No on 8 campaign.

• The legal decisions came in Keller v. State Bar of California, 496 U.S. 1, 13-14 (1990) and Brosterhous v. State Bar of California, No. 95AS0390 (Sac. Sup. Ct., Sept. 24, 1999).

Statement to our members

In 2004, the State Bar signed a contract with the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego for the bar’s 2009 annual meeting. Because of the size of our convention, contracts for venues are signed years in advance.

Doug Manchester, an owner of the Manchester Grand, contributed $125,000 in support of Proposition 8, the November ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage. Because of that contribution, there has been a call, including from some local bar associations, for the State Bar to cancel its annual meeting contract and for members to boycott the hotel or the convention. San Diego’s local hotel workers union has joined the call to boycott the hotel, which is non-union.

The State Bar understands and respects the decision of any individual to attend or to not attend the annual convention or events at the Manchester Grand, and understands the seriousness of the issue that has been raised. For those who may wish to come to the convention but not patronize the hotel, we want to make clear that no part of any registration fee goes to the hotel or any entity except the State Bar.

Proposition 8 and the issue of same-sex marriage have divided the electorate of California as well as members of the bar. The State Bar Board of Governors appreciates and respects each individual’s beliefs and the right to express those beliefs.

However, we are legally prevented from canceling the contract or supporting a boycott. Each board member is a fiduciary of the bar, which is prohibited by two court rulings, including one from the U.S. Supreme Court, from taking political positions or related actions.

In addition, our contract with the hotel has a liquidated damages clause that would cost the bar — from your dues — more than $425,000. To cancel the contract with the Manchester Grand Hyatt would expose the bar to a court challenge and extremely high potential damages, which also would come out of your dues.

The board of governors is aware of the strong feelings this issue has aroused. Some seeking cancellation and a boycott believe the issue is of such importance that the legalities of the board’s actions and its fiduciary responsibilities are irrelevant to the call for action. As the governing body of the lawyers of this state, however, the board has no choice but to meet its fiduciary duties and the terms of its contractual obligations.

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