Towery, Keane debate bar's future

Staff Writer

The State Bar is either a sham and a fraud or an organization devoted to protecting the public and upholding the legal profession.

And a vote to abolish the mandatory bar is either bad policy with no winners or a move toward more efficient performance of mandated functions at a fraction of the cost.

In the first of what is expected to be several debates throughout California, bar President Jim Towery and former Board of Governors member Peter Keane last month presented the case for and against the mandatory bar.

Before an audience of about 200 district attorneys in Santa Clara County, the two debated the merits of SB 60, which requires the bar to conduct a plebiscite of its 120,000 active members on its status. Ballots will go out in May and the results must be presented to the legislature, governor and Supreme Court July 1.

Grave consequences

Towery argued that passage of the measure "carries grave consequences" for both attorneys and the public in California.

"Do we want to give up control of our profession, control of our own ethical standards, discipline and budget and transfer it to some unnamed state agency?" he asked. "It's not good policy."

The bar now operates independently under the Supreme Court, admitting and disciplining lawyers, as well as performing numerous other legislatively mandated functions, Towery said. As a result, lawyers have control over their own professional standards.

If the plebiscite is approved, he warned, that control would shift to an unspecified state agency. However, attorneys would still be required to pay for operations such as discipline, which Towery said consumes 70 percent of bar dues.

He likened abolition of the bar to getting rid of the IRS. "Taxes will not disappear," he said. "If the bar is voluntary, it will be the worst of both worlds. Lawyers will continue to pay but will lose control."

No advocacy

But Keane, a longtime opponent of the bar, said the organization is an expensive, inefficient anachronism which operates at the whims of its top executives and is so fearful of the legislature that its advocacy function is virtually nonexistent.

"The State Bar is a sham, a shell game, one large fraud," Keane said. "It exists for the perpetuation of the officers at the top who run an enormous fiefdom."

He challenged the 70 percent discipline portion of the bar budget and charged that $139 of member dues is used to pay administrative costs. "That is $19 more than you would pay to belong to the New Jersey bar," he said.

Keane argued that most bar functions should be handled by a voluntary association and admissions and discipline should be the job of a state agency under the aegis of the judiciary. That agency's budget would be controlled by the legislature.

Transferring the discipline function to a disinterested body would enhance public respect, he said. "The public would see an entity at arm's length from the bar association and we'd have a much better reputation," he said.

High court refusal

However, Supreme Court Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas last year told the bar's Futures Commission that the high court does not want the job of attorney discipline.

Keane also stressed that the bar is not an effective advocate for lawyers because of the constraints of the U.S. Supreme Court's Keller ruling.

It is not a lawyer-run organization, he charged, adding, "we do not have a statewide association to advocate for us as a profession."

Towery countered that the bar represents attorneys well on administration of justice and professionalism issues.

As for political advocacy, other organizations do a good job, he said. "Do you really want the State Bar to take a position on the death penalty or abortion?" he asked.