Chiseling Away at the Bar

The Legislature assigns most of the work of the State Bar of California, including the testing of law-school graduates to see whether they are fit to practice and punishing those who turn out in practice not to be. In theory the Legislature can cancel any assignment that it makes if it doesn't like the work. But the motives and complaints of those who want to chisel away the Bar's authority need to be much clearer before anybody in Sacramento calls for a vote.

One legislative complaint, shared by many Bar members, is that the Bar has been slapping members on the wrist for mistakes that should lead to much more severe penalties. The Bar says that it is tightening up discipline. But some legislators are moving ahead with a plan to create a new state agency to handle client complaints and hand out punishment. Sacramento should wait to see whether the Bar's new system gets results.

Another complaint is that the Bar gets into areas that have nothing to do with the law, passing resolutions at its Conference of Delegates on such matters as American involvement in Nicaragua. If sounding off on public issues that have nothing to do with California government were a proper ground for complaint, the Legislature itself would be in danger of dismantlement.

Some legislators are upset because the Bar lobbies them. Everybody lobbies them.

What has brought the complaints to a head is a successful move by Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) to block an annual bill requiring lawyers to pay dues to the Bar. The dues, which add up to about $18 million a year, pay for Bar examinations, disciplinary cases, legal aid for the poor, training programs for lawyers and information programs to help people find lawyers when they need one.

Barging into a situation like that is like tugging at a thread in a Christmas sweater. It could unravel the good along with the bad, and the Legislature could wind up with just another trade association and nobody doing the Bar's work.

The problem, if any, obviously requires more careful thought than it has received from Nolan. The Legislature should approve dues for next year and then thrash out its complaints in open hearings in the very kind of adversarial process that has served the country well and that the Bar is designed to help preserve and improve.

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