Calif. High Court OKs $297 Fee for Lawyer Discipline System

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In the absence of its yearly dues bill from the Legislature, the California Supreme Court will allow the State Bar to start charging attorneys $297 to fund its discipline system – and nothing else.

In a letter to the State Bar on Thursday, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the court has no view on arguments it received urging it use its authority to fund the agency’s non-disciplinary functions, and that the court will not stop the bar from seeking donations to fund those activities.

The bar had asked the high court for permission to collect membership dues after the Legislature adjourned this past September without giving its consent to the bar’s collection of fees from California’s roughly 250,000 lawyers.

Neither chamber of the statehouse could agree on reform measures tied to the regulatory body’s ability to collect membership fees after months of negotiations between the heads of each judiciary committee and Cantil-Sakauye, and rival dues bills died in each house.

Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Monterey Bay Democrat who led the reform effort as chair of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, said Friday that he’s pleased that the court followed the precedent set in 1998.

“I look forward to working next year with all stakeholders concerned about the future of the bar to ensure that comprehensive funding, as well as much-needed reform, is approved by the Legislature,” he said.

A sticking point for the chief justice and the Senate was the Assembly’s push to split the bar’s trade association and attorney-discipline functions. While members of the Assembly’s judiciary committee finally agreed to nix the idea in favor of a clear definition of public protection in the bar’s dues bill, both sides still couldn’t come to agreement before the Sept. 1 legislative deadline.

In a statement, state Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said, “I am pleased that the Supreme Court has acted swiftly to exercise its constitutional authority over the State Bar to establish a bar dues assessment in the absence of legislation. This assessment will ensure a fully functioning attorney-disciplinary system that is so critical to protecting the public. We expect the State Bar to take advantage of this opportunity to fulfill its responsibilities.”

The Supreme Court last intervened on the dues issue in 1998, when Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed its annual dues bill. Cantil-Sakauye said the $297 fee is comparable to the emergency dues assessment the court ordered in 1998.

While the bar had asked for additional funding for its non-disciplinary functions, such as its Center on Access to Justice, Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation and California Commission on Access to Justice, the court declined to provide it.

“The court acknowledges that the State Bar’s highest priority is protection of the public, and that this objective may be achieved not only through its discipline system, but also through the State Bar’s administration of these types of programs, which work to ensure the integrity and effective functioning  of the legal system,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “For the coming year, however, the court declines to provide funding for Judicial Nominees Evaluation and the Center and the Commission, and strongly urges the State Bar to identify alternate funding sources to support these and other high-priority, non-disciplinary activities.”

Cantil-Sakauye also said the court decided not to fund the bar’s request of $2.50 per member to appoint a special monitor to report on its progress in reforming its discipline system.

The court appointed Justice Elwood Lui to oversee the collection and distribution of the fees, due by March 1.

“We are grateful for the Supreme Court’s thoughtful and prompt consideration of our fee request in its interim assessment order, and will continue moving forward in our public protection work,” State Bar executive director Elizabeth Parker said in a statement. “We are also deeply grateful to our dedicated employees who continue working diligently on behalf of all Californians, and are committed to making funding decisions that support both them and the State Bar’s mission.”

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