Calif. Legislature Leaves State Bar Unfunded

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California’s 2016 legislative session wrapped up early Thursday morning with the Legislature failing to pass a bill allowing the state bar to collect its yearly dues.
     Neither chamber of the statehouse could agree on reform measures tied to the regulatory body’s ability to collect membership fees even after months of negotiations between the heads of each judiciary committee and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, and rival dues bills died in each house.
     The state Senate sent AB 2878 to the Assembly, but it was not taken up and died when the Assembly floor session ended at 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
     Though SB 846 was passed by the Assembly and sent to the Senate, it didn’t make it out of committee and died without receiving a public hearing.
     In an interview, Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, said the Assembly ran out of time to discuss the Senate’s version of the bill, since it wasn’t finalized until 11:50 p.m., while the Assembly’s version stalled in the Senate Rules Committee.
     “We got it 10 minutes prior to the deadline. Now they’re saying it’s dead because the Assembly wouldn’t take it up,” Stone said. “They had an appropriate vehicle sitting in their rules committee for days. They knew what was going to happen, and they seemed to not want a bar bill. It’s just nuts.”
     In a statement, state Senate Judiciary Committee chair Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said, “Last night, despite agreement on a host of reforms and the vast majority of issues, the Assembly refused to take up and vote on the state bar dues bill that had the support of the chief justice, choosing to bypass an opportunity for meaningful reform and compromise.
     “While I am disappointed in that missed opportunity, the public and the legal community should be assured that the state bar will continue to operate. I look forward to resuming more productive and positive discussions in coming months.”
     The bar’s annual and typically unremarkable dues legislation sparked a deep ideological divide over how much oversight the Legislature should have over the agency, in light of a series of recent controversies that include two highly critical audits and multiple whistleblower lawsuits stemming from a backlog of attorney discipline cases.
     “I think the bar has taken the Legislature for granted for a really long time and in some sense rightly so, because there wasn’t any pushback. The Legislature turned a blind eye. You’re seeing that this committee is different,” Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, R-San Diego, said at an Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing last week. At the hearing, lawmakers excoriated state bar executive director Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker over her agency’s seeming inability to get its house in order.
     The Assembly threw its weight behind AB 2878, a bill originally authored by Stone, who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The bill made dues conditional on structural reforms, including a non-lawyer majority board of trustees and the potential splitting up of its trade organization and regulatory functions. Stone said the bar had become distracted from its primary job of disciplining delinquent attorneys and protecting the public.
     Stone watered down his bill in talks with Jackson and Cantil-Sakauye, and those two strong reform measures were eventually taken out. Deunification was dropped, along with the non-attorney majority board intended to keep the bar’s decisions in check.
     Instead, the bill proposed a legislative commission to study the bar’s operations and made the majority-attorney board contingent on active supervision of its decisions by the Supreme Court.
     Stone saw the amendments as a compromise to get a bar dues bill passed, saying he preferred some measure of reform over nothing.
     But Jackson still wasn’t happy with the bill, saying she could not support it while the Assembly continued to push for deunification. “I join the chief justice in continuing to express my deep concerns with this unstudied approach,” she said in a statement Monday. “I believe a balanced solution that combines reform with respect for the integrity of the judiciary and the authority of the Supreme Court is the best solution for Californians, the state bar and the legal community.”
     The Senate took over and amended AB 2878, prompting Stone to introduce SB 846, authored by Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon. It nixed the commission idea in favor of language clearly defining the meaning of public protection as the bar’s first priority.
     Stone added that AB 2878 contained several “authors” amendments he had not approved, and that days before Thursday’s deadline, several members of the Senate Judiciary approached him with amendments to SB 846 that removed language requiring an independent audit of the bar.
     “I never agreed to take the audit out,” Stone said. “Why is everyone so afraid of an audit? Because of what an audit shows.”
     In an email, staunch bar reformer Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said, “After months of work by our Assembly to bring about real reform for a broken state bar, the forces of status quo ran out the clock. In recent weeks, out of a spirit of compromise, we continued to propose various reform measures that would have ensured protection of the public as the bar’s top priority, only to have them repeatedly diluted and rejected. Until there’s a shared commitment to change, the state bar will remain in crisis.”
     Without the authority to generate income from California’s 243,000 attorneys, the bar will seek an order from the Supreme Court allowing it to assess fees to cover its regulatory duties. Parker told the Assembly Judiciary Committee that the agency also has about $20 million in reserves, which she guessed would last four months.
     The State Bar spent Thursday doing damage control. In a meeting with staff, bar officials decided not to immediately layoff employees. Instead, they will provide voluntary separation options, and if necessary, dip into reserves to stay afloat.
     “The State Bar’s mission is public protection and we will continue to prioritize that work with as little disruption as possible. We’re going to get through this,” Rindskopf Parker said in a statement.
     “While I am disappointed that it was not possible for the legislature to come to an agreement on a fee bill, I am grateful for the important discussions that have taken place. We look forward to working with both houses of the legislature and the Chief Justice as we continue making important improvements to the State Bar’s governance and public protection activities.”
     The State Bar last petitioned the Supreme Court to assess fees in 1998, after Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed its annual dues bill. On Thursday, Rindskopf Parker said the bar should brace for any scenario. “It’s important to understand that 2016 is a very different time than previous years when the State Bar faced no fee bill. We should not assume that the outcome will resemble what happened in 1998. I’m encouraged by the strong leadership of the Chief Justice regarding the State Bar,” she said.
     Stone said he imagines the Legislature will revisit the issue when it convenes again in December.
     “Discussions are going to have to resume at some point,” he said. “Everyone needs to take a step back and grow up a little bit.”

%d bloggers like this: