Sunday, June 19, 2016

California State Bar is failing in its duty to oversee lawyers' ethics

The California State Bar's dismal history shows why it should be broken up
Michael Hiltzik
LA Times
June 17, 2016

Let’s put this in terms that even an attorney with peerless loophole-seeking skills would consider straightforward: the California State Bar is a mess.

In recent years, the organization has been the target of withering state audits documenting misspent fees by the millions, overpaid executives, and inept management of its all-important duty of licensing lawyers and managing professional discipline. 

Its reputation is at a low ebb among state legislators, who last month placed on hold the organization’s yearly authorization to collect annual fees because the measure didn’t go far enough to achieve reform.

The Bar’s dual role as licenser and ethics enforcer as well as trade organization pushing policy changes,  critics say, leaves it hopelessly mired in a conflict of interest.

“You don’t delegate regulatory power to a special interest group,” says Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law and a frequent critic of the Bar. “To let them be the decision-makers is obscene.”

These issues seem to crop up every few years, but seldom with as much urgency as now. That’s because a 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has put professional licensing bodies on notice that they could be guilty of antitrust violations if a majority of their members are participants in the business they regulate.

The California State Bar is governed by a 19-member board of trustees, 13 of whom are lawyers. You do the math.

The Court decision isn’t the only driver of potential change. “People can suffer irreparable harm from attorneys,” says Fellmeth, a lawyer. They can be deprived of their liberty by inadequate representation in criminal court or immigration cases..

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