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Political support ebbs for California’s bar

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The California State Bar is in a jam, and not even the lawyers who belong to it are rushing to defend it.

As cop, tax collector and lobbyist for a profession held in low esteem by the public, the nation's largest state organization of lawyers has managed to offend practically everyone - chief among them Gov. Pete Wilson, who last fall stripped the bar of its authority to collect dues.As a result, the bar has laid off most of its employees, stopped taking calls about incompetent or dishonest lawyers and is about to run out of money.

Wilson, a lawyer himself, is untroubled by the prospect. In vetoing the dues bill last October, the Republican said that the bar was "bloated, arrogant, oblivious and unresponsive" and that it meddles in liberal causes such as same-sex marriages, reduced drug penalties and racial diversity in law schools.

Now, every time Wilson gets on a plane, "every lawyer gets on a conga line to high-five him for his efforts to reform the bar," Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh said.

"There is no more good will left in the Legislature or the governor's office for the bar."

The bar "got so big and so arrogant that it deserved the dumping," said Joseph J. Malandra, a 28-year lawyer who has a one-person general practice in San Francisco.

He complained that he has to pay the same dues as the big-firm, high-income lawyers, as well as escalating prices for the 12-hour, state-mandated continuing-education course, a requirement he called useless.

The bar, with 160,000 members, is a victim of both its own missteps and problems not entirely of its own making.

Its mandatory membership rule, contained in the California Constitution and shared by many other state bars, was only a minor annoyance for most lawyers 15 years ago, when dues were under $200.

But dues soared to $458 - more than twice the national average - after the bar, under pressure from the Legislature, overhauled its volunteer-run system of disciplining lawyers by hiring professional investigators and judges.

The bar's biggest political blunder was probably its endorsement of an unsuccessful bill that would have allowed bigger damage awards in medical malpractice cases. The move only antagonized the medical profession and the insurance industry, which lobbied Wilson to veto the dues bill.

The governor's antagonism for the bar dates back to at least 1982, when as a Senate candidate he was censured by a bar group for threatening to lead a recall of the state Supreme Court if it overturned a crime initiative.

More recently, Wilson got angry when a bar commission that evaluates candidates for the bench gave an unqualified rating to his most recent Supreme Court nominee.

Two weeks ago, Wilson announced his terms for saving the bar. Among them: reducing dues to $295 a year and transforming the bar's policymaking board into a body appointed by the governor. Wilson said the bar's functions should be limited to admissions, discipline and education and that it should drop political advocacy.

But bar leaders, joined by Democrats in the Legislature, rejected the proposal, saying that the dues cut would be crippling and that the change in the board would end the bar's 71 years of political independence.

"There is no place for politics in the administration of justice," said Marc Adelman, the San Diego lawyer who is serving a painful one-year term as bar president.

The bar's chief legislative ally, Democratic Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, said the impasse will probably continue until a new governor takes office next year.

In the meantime, the bar has virtually shut down its lawyer discipline system. Nearly 500 of the bar's 620 employees have gotten layoff notices, most effective June 26. By mid-July, it said, it will run out of money and halt practically everything but testing and admission of new lawyers.

Adelman warned that the bar's collapse would deprive the public of protection from bad lawyers. But the governor's office has said that if the bar goes under, the state Supreme Court can exercise its authority to discipline lawyers.

Dismantling the bar would be "absolutely tragic," said Lana J. Feldman, a civil litigator in Irvine. "The public has to have confidence in lawyers by having some means to police them. Even lawyers themselves have to have some recourse" against dishonest lawyers.

However, only about a quarter of the bar's lawyers have responded to a plea that they voluntarily pay their dues. The letters column in the California Bar Journal has been resoundingly anti-bar.