California Bar asks for Supreme Court intervention in dues issue

By Mike Helenthal | Sep 18, 2016

SAN FRANCISO – The State Bar of California (SBC) is throwing itself at the mercy of the Supreme Court of California, hoping to reinstate its ability to collect fees, which lapses Jan. 1, 2017.

SAN FRANCISCO – The State Bar of California (SBC) is throwing itself at the mercy of the Supreme Court of California, hoping to reinstate its ability to collect fees, which lapses Jan. 1, 2017.

State Bar officials recently filed a request with the Supreme Court asking for a “special regulatory assessment” to address the funding issue, which they say would devastate the state’s legal system and their ability to regulate it.

Laura Ende, the SBC’s managing director of communications, told the Northern California Record that the governing board made the request to the court because the organization does not have legislative authority to require bar members to pay dues next year.

Legislators declined in May to pass a dues bill, which includes a fee increase, complaining that the State Bar, which regulates the state’s attorneys, had not produced long-promised reforms designed to ensure public trust by addressing those complaints.

They said a dues increase request was unjustified, though State Bar officials said it is needed to cover an increase in attorney discipline cases.

In addition to handcuffing the regulatory ability of the State Bar, not having a dues bill could cause a number of problems for the state’s legal system – including jeopardizing up to $7 million distributed annually for legal aid.

“In May, the State Bar provided four legislatively mandated reports outlining needed reforms, including a workforce planning study, a classification and compensation study, and recommendations on resources needed to address a backlog of attorney discipline complaints," Ende said.

In August, she said the task force submitted a report addressing all of the relevant issues.

“The State Bar’s Governance in the Public Interest Task Force identified core systemic problems, potential solutions and recommendations,” she said. “Several of those were approved at Monday’s (Sept. 12) board meeting.”

But, according to the Courthouse News website, legislators “revolted” in the May session amid accusations of misspending, and poor financial and attorney discipline reporting. The result was that a dues bill was not passed.

Several of those legislators expressed disappointment with SBC’s first-year Executive Director Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker in a subsequent dues bill hearing in August.

“This is an organization that is not functioning," San Diego Assemblyman Brian Maienschein was quoted as saying in Courthouse News, “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.”

Ende said the organization has little recourse other than to take its case to the state’s Supreme Court.

According to board documents, the State Bar is asking the court “for an assessment of active attorneys at a level necessary to ensure the full functioning of the State Bar’s public protection functions, to include, but not necessarily be limited to including the disciplinary system, prevention, elimination of bias and access to justice work.”

It also is asking for a “qualified individual” to monitor the bar’s progress on the proposed reforms and whether any antirust issues are present under the current system.

The documents say the State Bar will provide revenue projections “as well as a range of options, including redirecting existing resources to the discipline system, for the Court to consider in determining, in its discretion, the appropriate interim regulatory assessment.”

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