Calif. Approves State Bar Transparency Bill

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – A bill adding transparency to the California State Bar that was inspired by a scathing probe from the state auditor was approved unanimously by lawmakers Friday and awaits approval from the governor.
     If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate Bill 387 will require the state bar to abide by the same transparency laws as other state agencies, specifically the California Public Records Act and the Bagley-Keene Act.
     The bill passed the state senate for a second time after a few last-minute amendments were added by the state assembly, said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.
     Jackson said the assembly’s amendments were added after a June report from the California State Auditor lambasted the state bar for rushing disciplinary cases and being soft on violating attorneys.
     “The amendments taken in the assembly include better defining the backlog of discipline cases, requiring the bar to complete a workforce plan for its discipline system and requiring it to develop a reasonable spending-plan based upon its necessary operations,” Jackson testified.
     Jackson also said the bill will mandate an in-depth audit of the California State Bar’s financial and internal controls.
     In June, a 69-page audit exposed the state bar for having more than 5,000 disciplinary cases in its backlog in 2010 and for charging excessive member fees. The audit also blasted the California bar for undergoing a $76-million construction project in Los Angeles when it was only approved by legislators for a $10 million budget.
     The California State Bar has long disclosed its operational information, pointing to the fact that it is not subject to transparency laws other state agencies are forced to abide by. In response to the June audit, the state bar approved new open records rules in July but they will be superseded if Brown signs SB 387.
     California State Bar President Craig Holden said the organization welcomes the changes.
     “The state bar fully supports further enhancements to open government and public records rules contained in our annual fee bill, SB 387, which will become law if signed by the governor,” Holden said.
     The Center for Public Interest Law, a University of San Diego research and advocacy group, told Courthouse News it has been lobbying for increased transparency of the California State Bar for more than 30 years and was pleased with Friday’s result, but the legislature must continue its reform efforts.
     “What remains for the legislature to address is a state bar governance structure with conflict of interest baked into its DNA: where the regulated absurdly vote for who will regulate them, where the regulator also serves as the rah-rah trade association for the profession, and where the voices of the objective public members are drowned out by a chorus of more than two times as many lawyer members,” said Ed Howard, the center’s senior counsel, in a statement.

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