Assembly Weakens California Bar Reform Plan

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The California Assembly passed several amendments to a bill on state bar dues in a heated floor session Friday, though some lawmakers said the new legislation doesn’t go far enough in making membership dues contingent on sweeping structural reforms.
     “This half-step is by no means final. If this is the best we can get it’s probably better we not have a bar dues bill and that we let it be known that we are not going to be implicit in the bar’s continuing dysfunction,” Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, said.
     Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, has been fighting to keep the bill alive since negotiations with the state Senate and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye broke down last Friday over two critical points.
     The Assembly Judiciary Committee that Stone heads had pushed for a complete overhaul of the state bar’s 19-member governing board of trustees to include a non-lawyer majority, and the creation of a legislative commission to study the bar’s operations and make recommendations for changes. But Cantil-Sakauye and the Senate Judiciary Committee chair refused to consent to those conditions.
     In separate statements, both said last week that they would not cede the Supreme Court’s plenary authority over the State Bar by the Legislature.
     On Friday, Stone reintroduced the bill as SB 846, taking the commission off the table in exchange for a clear definition of the state bar’s primary duty of public protection.
     He also conceded a non-attorney majority board, but made the attorney majority contingent on active supervision of the bar’s decisions by the Supreme Court.
     “We have language in there to ensure the Supreme Court is actively supervising any antitrust decisions the board might make,” Stone said at Friday’s floor session.
     In an interview, Stone said the bar’s current attorney supermajority raised antitrust issues, a problem that goes with having a regulatory body made up of market participants.
     “If we have active supervision by the Supreme Court that gets us out of any question of antitrust violations,” he said.
     The Assembly Judiciary Committee had already dropped the idea of splitting up the bar’s public protection and trade association activities in favor of the commission idea, but Stone said Friday that he had backed off on the commission as well to pursue clearly defining the state bar’s mission.
     “The Legislature five years ago told the bar your top priority is public protection. The bar recently came out and said that is everything we do. That’s ludicrous. It actually codified all their bad decisions. I thought this was a way to bridge the gap with the Senate and make some progress,” Stone said. “So all the language we just amended into a bill today is effectively what my last best offer was to the Senate.”
     But Wagner was furious on the Assembly floor, pointing to a decision in May not to pass the state bar’s usual funding bill unless it made some major changes to its operations and power structure. The impetus behind the Assembly revolt was a slew of controversies involving questionable spending, a huge backlog of attorney discipline cases and two highly critical state audits.
     “This floor back in May was absolutely lit when this bill first came to us. It did nothing to fix the problems we all recognized, and we refused to pass it. That was a good day for this House because we collectively exercised the oversight responsibility that frankly we should have been exercising for years,” Wagner said. “Now it’s getting absolutely shellacked in the Senate. It’s unacceptable that we allow the current situation to continue.”
     Wagner said he would vote for the amended bill reluctantly.
     Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, also said he would vote for the bill, though he was disappointed by the weakened amendments.
     “While I’m going to reluctantly support these amendments today, it’s only for the purpose of continuing the conversation in our assembly judiciary committee,” Chiu said, adding that he still supports deunifying the bar’s regulatory and trade functions.
     Stone still needs to convince the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to pass the amended bill before it can go to the state Senate.
     On the question of the majority attorney board, Stone said, “I think I can lay that out to my members and get them to understand that. I think I’ve got an easier shot at that.”
     The public protection piece will be tougher, but it’s a compromise Stone can live with.
     “We’ve given them a stick by which we can measure all their decisions. It’s a way of holding their feet to the fire,” he said. “It’s a way to try to undo all the dysfunction. It’s not as far as having a commission but it’s significant.”
     In an emailed statement, State Bar Executive Director Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker said the agency will be asking the Supreme Court to authorize fees should the bill fail. “The State Bar is closely monitoring discussions among leaders of both Legislative Houses and the Judiciary,” she said. “I’m grateful for the strong leadership of the Chief Justice in her support of the State Bar on these issues. Even so, in order to be ready for all scenarios, the State Bar is preparing a submission to the California Supreme Court to authorize the State Bar to assess fees, in the event that is necessary, though we hope it will not be.
     She added, “I also want to acknowledge that the leadership of the State Bar has heard the call for reform and we agree that systemic changes are needed.”

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