Judiciary Relentless With Calif. Bar Director

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – Lawmakers raked California State Bar Executive Director Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker over the coals Wednesday as they debated a bill that would allow the Bar to collect dues this year.
     “The level of tone deafness is stunning,” Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, R-San Diego, told Rindskopf Parker.
     Maienschein said he was troubled by the watered-down, eleventh-hour effort to get a bar dues bill passed, and said the State Bar is no closer to clearly defining its public protection duties than it was five years ago.
     He was furious that the Bar had even considered asking to raise its dues to address its backlog of attorney discipline cases.
     “This is an organization that is not functioning. The level of just incompetence,” Maienschein said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know what to say to that. That you can even think to come here and ask for more money when every person here is saying you’re not spending money well. Please do not even remotely consider coming back for a dues increase.”
     He added: “I’m going to so reluctantly support this today. But it’s the last time. This needs to change dramatically.”
     Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee that met Wednesday, urged fellow lawmakers to pass the bill out of committee despite their reservations that it does not require drastic reforms of the combination trade group and regulatory body.
     “We need to come up with something to send to the Senate. I’m not sure that not having a Bar bill is the right answer,” Stone said. “If it doesn’t meet your standards, that’s on me. I’m the one that walked this back intentionally, trying to make sure we have a Bar bill.”
     The Assembly revolted in May over what is usually routine legislation, demanding that the State Bar be held accountable for years of misspending, inaccurately reporting its finances and failing to properly discipline delinquent attorneys, including 300 unauthorized practice of law cases reportedly found sitting in a drawer.
     The Assembly made Bar dues contingent on a series of reforms, including a shakeup of its board of trustees to get a majority of non-attorney members, and a legislative commission to study the possibility of splitting up its trade association and attorney discipline functions.
     Stone had pushed those reforms to stop the vicious cycle of poor decision-making and to prevent antitrust violations: a problem inherent in having a regulatory body made up of market participants.
     But Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, roundly rejected those provisions. After negotiations broke down a few weeks ago, Stone introduced a new bill, SB 846.
     Authored by Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, SB 846 dropped those two key provisions in exchange for a majority-attorney board, favored by Jackson and Cantil-Sakauye, and a clearer definition of the Bar’s mission, which he believes will go a long way toward holding the Bar accountable for its actions.
     “If they are not guided by a principle of what their primary policy obligations are, they are going to be making decisions without an appropriate filter,” Stone said Wednesday. He added that the Legislature asked the Bar five years ago to define its primary priority as protecting the public, and that he has yet to receive anything more than a laundry list of activities encompassing pretty much everything the Bar does.
     The committee also heard from critics who urged them to reject the weakened version of the bill.
     Ed Howard, senior counsel at the San Diego School of Law, called the bill “extremely regrettable” and “a screaming example of why the Bar is so distracted and why it needs to be fixed.”
     He cited the Bar’s decision to take out a $10 million loan to upgrade its offices in San Francisco, despite the State Auditor’s blasting its $75 million building purchase in Los Angeles.
     “This is not the old guard,” Howard said. “This is the current regime of good and brilliant people and it happened on their watch, and when their operations were under the most intense legislative and public scrutiny you could possibly imagine.
     “It’s not the people. It’s the culture, it’s the machine.”
     Dennis Mangers, a member of the Bar’s Board of Governors, also opposed the bill, saying de-unification “is ultimately the only thing that will work.”
     He added: “These people are distracted regulators because they are too involved in the internecine politics of their trade association.”
     Citing Cantil-Sakauye’s and Jackson’s contention that the state supreme court not cede any of its plenary authority for overseeing the Bar to the Legislature, Mangers said: “It’s particularly frustrating to me that the supreme court should suggest that this should be completely in their purview. In my entire six years there, the court has never made a directive or even a suggestion to the Bar regarding obviously needed governance changes.
     “What is this business about, ‘If you just leave it to the court they’ll fix it, or a lawyer-dominated body they’ll fix it?’ Frankly, they won’t. You can imagine the kind of angst I feel that once again forces have frustrated the attempts to do the right thing.”
     Rindskopf Parker seemed unprepared for the onslaught of comments from the Assembly Judiciary Committee, and referred the lion’s share of their questions to her board for its next meeting.
     Rindskopf Parker, who has been on the job less than a year, said it will take a while to effect any real change.
     But she added: “I think the pressure you put on us is welcome. We want to do reform. It’s a short time to turn an organization around in less than a year, but what we have said consistently is that we’re about that business. No matter what happens, these reforms are going to continue and I pledge that to you.”
     The committee members were hardly satisfied, saying they’d heard it all before.
     “Every time you’ve come before this committee, we’ve expressed concern after concern,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas. “Audit after audit, report after report. Again: tone deaf.”
     He added: “This is not just an issue of the last two years. It’s been pervasive. New director after new director comes in, new board after new board, we see the same thing because the institutional changes don’t happen.”
     Rindskopf Parker replied: “I understand your skepticism.”
     Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, piled on: “Why should we have any confidence that you are able to address the myriad of concerns that we have?” he asked, adding that Rindskopf Parker seemed to keep passing the buck to the board, none of whose members appeared to be present — a remark that the Bar leader contested.
     “This is not a simple ship to turn around,” Rindskopf Parker said. “It is going to take some time, but the work is under way. We’ve spent a good bit of time looking at a myriad of governance issues. We are dealing with a large organic institution, with people’s lives and work involved, and a bad of set of problems from a long historic perspective.”
     Rindskopf Parker pointed to a number of board members in the audience, and said more were watching the hearing online.
     “But they’re not doing anything,” Ting said. “We’ve been hearing about people doing things, but we’re not seeing anything. It’s very troubling to try to do what the auditor is recommending, what the public is demanding, what your members are begging for, and to be running into a solid concrete wall. I’m having a very hard time voting for it.”
     Criticizing the “obstruction” of the Bar, Ting added: “I’m proud today to not be an attorney and not be paying State Bar dues, but if I were, I’d be extraordinarily angry and ashamed. Your answers give me no confidence that anything will change in the next six or seven months.”
     Then the committee voted begrudgingly to pass the bill, mostly in deference to Stone.
     Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Jackson has amended Stone’s bill, AB 2878, nixing the majority non-attorney board and commission in favor of a definition of public protection that includes three “core functions.”
     In a statement sent to Courthouse News, Jackson said: “In response to a measure authored by Republican Senator Joel Anderson and amended in the Assembly last week, the Senate inserted its own amendments into the annual bar dues bill, AB 2878. By amending AB 2878, we are ensuring that we can have a fair and responsible discussion about reform of the State Bar, with amendments that are supported by the chief justice, and that respect the integrity of the judiciary, the authority of the supreme court, and the important role the State Bar plays in protecting the public. We owe Californians and the legal community a Bar dues bill that is thoughtful, reasoned and that includes meaningful reform. I look forward to the Assembly joining us to collaboratively achieve these goals in the last few days of the legislative session.”
     Sen. Anderson, who sat in on Wednesday’s hearing, said the Assembly should prepare for a tough fight.
     “I’ve seen this time in and time out. You’re fighting a culture. And while I’m happy to carry this bill this year I’m not happy with it either,” he said. “But I do believe the chair is absolutely correct that incremental change is change in the right direction. I just want you to think of in terms next year of making that incremental change greater with the next bill, because you are fighting a culture that’s going to resist you with every fiber in their body.”

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