(CN) — The California State Bar is in danger of losing its funding this year, after contentious talks between the heads of the Legislature’s two judiciary committees and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye over how to reform the agency broke down Thursday.
Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said that at a “very brief meeting” Thursday, Cantil-Sakauye and state Senate Judiciary chair Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, told him that they were fine with not having legislation authorizing the state bar to collect dues this year.
“I’m disappointed,” Stone said. “I thought we would be able to keep having conversations about where we need to be, and it’s not appropriate to be that cavalier about not having a bar bill.”
In a statement, Cantil-Sakauye said, “I believe that a Bar Bill is necessary and is good government policy, and the consequences of not having a fee bill are serious. I care deeply that employees not face job losses, that the Bar’s public protection functions not be impaired, and that the meaningful reforms we have already agreed to not be lost without the necessary legislation.”
She continued: “Enacting a fee bill is important, and indeed critical to the State Bar’s ability to protect the public. There have been six reports mandated by the legislature on bar reform that I have supported. However, the Bar is a constitutional agency within the judicial branch, and while I support many of the reform provisions in the original bill, I will not cede the court’s plenary authority over the attorney discipline system and will not agree to major restructuring and deunification of the Bar without an opportunity for the Supreme Court to deliberate the merits and soundness of such significant changes.”
Since June, the two legislative houses have been tussling over whether to authorize the state bar to collect dues this year, with the Assembly pushing to make that ability contingent on serious structural reforms — chief among them a complete overhaul of its 19-member governing board of trustees to include a non-lawyer majority. The Supreme Court currently appoints five attorney members.
The Assembly also wanted to create a commission to study the bar’s operations and make recommendations for changes, comprised of members appointed by the Legislature or the governor’s office.
These two measures were sticking points for Cantil-Sakauye and Jackson, who preferred a board made up of mostly attorneys.
Cantil-Sakauye also wanted to appoint a special master to study the agency, not another commission as suggested by the Assembly.
“Where we left it yesterday was the chief justice and senate judiciary chair said those are both non-starters,” Stone said. “The chief justice proposed a special master and that did not go over very well with Assembly members. That completely shuts out legislative involvement. We wouldn’t be at the table receiving information or making any recommendations on governance. I told the chief justice that the Legislature would like have a role at that table and the recommendation process.”
Stone said Cantil-Sakauye also wanted to rely on findings from the “Task Force on Governance in the Public Interest,” whose report released last week revealed significant problems within the state bar but proposed no substantive solutions. The Legislature had ordered the state bar to assemble that task force five years ago.
“The governance task force report points to a number of issues but makes no recommendations of what to do,” Stone said. “If we’re not willing to let the bar just use the existing reports and go solve its problems — which it has historically proven it’s not able to do — then they’re perfectly fine with no bar bill.”
Meanwhile, California State Auditor Elaine Howle released two audits of the state bar in the last year, blasting the agency for errors in its financial reports to the Legislature, an excessive backlog of attorney discipline cases, and spending $76 million on new Los Angeles offices.
“Any time there’s an audit or report there are more things that crop up about decisions that have been made. The current leadership of the bar is saying, ‘There have been problems in the past, but we’ve solved those.’ But just this past year there have been things that happened that perpetuate mistakes. I think there’s a structural problem here.” Stone said. “Unless we solve the underlying problem of who is on the board and how they look at issues, there will continue to be problems.”
One issue stems from the state bar’s different regulatory and administrative functions. On one hand, it administers the bar exam and disciplines delinquent lawyers. On the other, it serves as a trade organization to its members.
Stone said several things need to be looked at, like the authority of its president and executive director and its foray into real estate deals, which he said have become a distraction.
The bill is currently sitting with the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In a statement, Jackson said, “I remain hopeful that we can achieve a state bar dues bill this legislative session. We share a commitment to the need for meaningful reform of the state bar, and have reached an agreement on the vast majority of issues. However, I remain committed to ensuring that this legislation respects the integrity and independence of the judiciary and the inherent and fundamental authority of the Supreme Court over the officers of the court and the state bar. I believe we can achieve these goals while protecting the public interest.”
Stone said, “I’m talking to members of my committee we’re trying to figure out what our next steps are. I’m disappointed in the tactic taken yesterday but I still want to work toward a bill that’s satisfactory to both houses.”
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