California Bar Asks State High Court to OK Bar Fees

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The California State Bar on Friday submitted a request to the California Supreme Court for permission to collect membership dues to stay afloat in the absence of legislation that funds its operations each year.
     “I’m confident that the request we submitted will provide the court with the information it needs to act on our request and look forward to its early positive response,” State Bar President David J. Pasternak said. “In the meantime, we are in the process of continuing important reforms to ensure the state bar is doing the best possible job at public protection for all Californians.”
     The bar last petitioned the Supreme Court to assess fees in 1998, after Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed its annual dues bill.
     The request paints a stark picture of what might happen should the bar be left without a funding source, and asks that the high court rule by the end of November so it can begin collecting at least the basic $315 membership fee per attorney in December.
     “The state bar asks this court to act expeditiously to prevent a recurrence of the conditions that took place in 1998, when, in absence of a legislatively authorized fee, the state bar virtually ceased to operate,” the letter to the Supreme Court says.
     “Without a court-ordered assessment of fees for 2017, the past will most certainly be prologue. The state bar would need to begin issuing layoff notices by Jan. 31, 2016, with an expected significant reduction to staff by April 1.”
     The letter also says the bar will be required to provide severance pay and benefits to laid-off employees, and will be forced to spend the bulk of its $20 million in reserves paying off bank loans on its properties.
     The Legislature adjourned earlier this month without agreeing on a bill allowing the bar to collect 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 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 bar has asked the court to fund its disciplinary functions and “access to justice initiatives,” like its legal assistance center for low income Californians.
     The letter presents a range of options for the court should it decide to authorize dues. It can allow the bar to assess a fee to address its backlog of attorney discipline cases only, implement a legislatively mandated workforce planning and compensation study to reassess its staffing levels, or a combination of both.
     It also asks for $2.50 per member to fund the appointment of a special monitor to report on its progress in reforming its discipline system.
     “We need the funding to support the employees who are crucial to achieving our public protection mission and implementing the many important reforms before us,” executive director Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker said in a statement, adding, “We will also be working closely with the Legislature and the court to continue making needed reforms a reality. Ultimately, our work is for the benefit of Californians, and we’re seeking to do our best public protection work on their behalf.”

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