SAN FRANCISCO – The California legislature’s failure to pass a bill to assess fees to attorneys to fund the State Bar has led to a request to the state’s highest court for interim power to assess and collect dues.
State Bar of California’s executive director will ask her board of trustees to approve the request at its special meeting Monday. Sept. 12.
A 1998 California Supreme Court ruling established that the court can grant interim authority for the agency to assess fees to attorneys licensed in California in the absence of legislative action, the California Bar Journal explained.
Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, the bar’s executive director, said in a statement issued via the journal that she anticipates the board of trustees will approve the request at the meeting.
A submission will then be made to the California Supreme Court to ask that the court make a decision by early December in order to allow fees to be collected on the usual schedule.
The last time such a submission was made was in 1998. It will seek the ability to fund the State Bar discipline functions, and other public protection programs, according to the Journal, the official publication of the State Bar.
Since June, the California State Assembly has been debating over whether to authorize the State Bar to collect dues. The Assembly is pushing for it to be contingent on serious structural reforms, including the overhaul of the its 19-member governing board of trustees to include a non-lawyer majority.
The Assembly also wanted to create a commission, made up of members appointed by the legislature or the governor's office, to study the bar's operations and make recommendations for changes.
In a statement published in the Journal, Parker said she is disappointed the state legislature did not come to an agreement on a fee bill, but grateful other discussions have taken place.
"The State Bar’s mission is public protection and we will continue to prioritize that work with as little disruption as possible,” Parker said. “We’re going to get through this.”
“While I am disappointed that it was not possible for the legislature to come to an agreement on a fee bill, I am grateful for the important discussions that have taken place.”
Parker said she is looking forward to working with both houses of the legislature and the chief justice as "we continue making important improvements to the State Bar’s governance and public protection activities.
“It’s important to understand that 2016 is a very different time than previous years when the State Bar faced no fee bill.
“I’m encouraged by the strong leadership of the chief justice regarding the State Bar. I believe that we can and will continue the important business of reforms and systemic changes."
Incoming State Bar President James Fox plans to build on the reforms already underway to bring an increased focus on the core public protection functions.
Parker and Chief Operating Officer Leah Wilson hosted a meeting Sept. 1 to answer questions from staff, the Journal reported.
They told staff that the State Bar is preparing for all scenarios, but does not anticipate and does not want major downsizing.
Further, the two senior executives said that in order to address understandable staff uncertainty, the bar may provide voluntary separation options.
In the event that the Supreme Court does not grant fees for the bar, the agency has $21 million in general fund reserves that could fund operations for up to four months. The bar has indicated it is doing the diligent work to prevent this scenario.