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High Noon for State Bar Funds

Tuesday could be high noon for the state’s lawyers. At least that’s what the governor and some of his legislative colleagues hope. They have the State Bar of California in their sights. But as the Legislature takes up draconian bills that would effectively do away with or greatly diminish the state bar, along with its licensing and discipline functions, the public, not lawyers, stands to be the first casualty.

The state bar examination determines who is qualified to practice law in California, and the bar investigates some 140,000 complaints annually from the public about attorneys. It is also the job of this group, to which the 161,000 attorneys in California are required to belong, to weed out unethical or incompetent lawyers and ensure that attorneys stay up to date on the law. Because of these important functions, the existence of the state bar is written into the state Constitution. So Gov. Pete Wilson is going after the organization through a back door, trying to financially starve it.

Wilson has nursed a long-running grudge against the state bar for its non-regulatory functions--its role in evaluating judicial candidates proposed by the governor, its support for bills the governor opposed and a 1982 con- ference of delegates’ censure of Wilson, then a U.S. senator, over his threat to seek recall of state Supreme Court justices if they overturned an anti-crime initiative.

Wilson precipitated the current showdown last fall by vetoing the annual dues bill that the Legislature must approve; the state bar receives no tax revenue. Without funds from dues, $458 per member last year, the bar will have to shut its doors in July and lay off about 400 employees.

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Three bills now before lawmakers each claim to get rid of bureaucratic fat while preserving key regulatory and disciplinary functions. But only a compromise measure from Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) would leave the watchdog function more or less intact, while trimming dues and imposing limits on lobbying.

The state bar says that beginning next Monday it will not take any new complaints from the public about unethical or illegal behavior of lawyers. Its officials say they should not open new investigations they may be unable to close.

This grudge match is not in the best interests of the public. The Legislature should end it quickly by passing Hertzberg’s bill and restoring adequate funding.


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