‘Special master’ appointed to eye State Bar

An attorney gives advice to a client via a cell phone. Photo: PhuShutter)

A special master has been named to ride herd on the State Bar’s request for money – a move that follows the Legislature’s unprecedented refusal to allow the bar to collect dues from thousands of attorneys.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Wednesday appointed appellate court Justice Elwood Lui of Los Angeles to examine the funding request by the Bar. Lui serves on the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Cantil-Sakauye ordered Lui to get “additional information” about the Bar’s request and report back his findings.

The State Bar of California, which has about 500 employees and, among other duties, disciplines rogue lawyers, said it will go out of business early next year unless it gets its funding request approved.

“The absence of State Bar funding presents a substantial risk” to programs protecting the public, the Bar told the high court in its request last month.

“The lack of a functioning disciplinary system places the public, the integrity of the legal profession and the interest of the courts all at great risk. The lack of funding also threatens the employment security of the State Bar work force…”

Cantil-Sakauye, acting on behalf of the Supreme Court, told Lui to get “additional information” about the Bar’s request and report back his findings.

The Bar, created in 1927, is an arm of the state Supreme Court. It collects full dues of $315 annually from about 186,000 California-licensed lawyers, and a lesser amount from about 65,000 inactive attorneys. The Bar engages in numerous activities, including making recommendations on judicial appointees, administering the Bar exam and tracking academic qualifications of law schools.

The Bar has a $146.1 million annual budget, with the core of the Bar’s funding coming its authority to collect dues, which requires legislative approval.

But in an unprecedented move, lawmakers balked at authorizing funding for the Bar, with some complaining that the Bar’s attorney discipline role was deficient and that victims were not being compensated in a timely manner. A May audit found that the Barr had a backlog of 5,500 applications for restitution from victims of attorney misconduct and a shortfall of more than $16 million to pay the claims.

The Legislature adjourned without taking action on the Bar dues bill – the first time that has happened. The new Legislature — including members elected on Nov. 8 — is not scheduled to begin acting on bills until January.

In October 1997, then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, vetoed the Bar dues bill, reflecting a Republican view that the Bar reflected a Democratic bias. The state Supreme Court intervened, appointed a special master and ultimately resolved the dispute.

Last month, the Bar asked the Supreme Court to approve its request by November, which would allow the Bar to send out dues notices to the attorneys the following month.

About 990 California lawyers were disciplined and 421 were disbarred or suspended in 2015, according to the Bar’s annual discipline report, which was completed in April. The Bar said it received 15,796 complaints about attorneys.


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