Something truly unprecedented is going on now in Sacramento — a bare knuckle brawl over the future of the State Bar between the California Supreme Court, and its supporters in the State Senate, and the State Assembly. The battleground for the brawl is the annual bill authorizing the State Bar to assess its operating fees from the members of the State Bar — this year it is AB 2878. Originally rejected by Assembly by a vote of 50-10, it was amended to provide for a public member majority Board of Trustees and the appointment of a Commission to look yet again at the question, So amended, it was reported out of the Assembly on a vote of 79 to 0.
Only to meet a buzzsaw in State Senate, in the person of Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson, who stripped out these two key provisions from AB 2878. Just to make things more confusing, the State Assembly then conjured up a competing bill from the shell of SB 846, which also dropped the provision for a majority public member Board and the idea of new governance commission. As widely reported, these were provisions opposed by the Chief Justice (and presumably) the Court as a whole.
All this remarkable enough. But extraordinary in my view is very public role played by the Chief Justice in speaking out against AB 2878. The California Supreme Court is highly involved in the discipline system; the State Bar is, after all, its administrative arm for discipline and admissions. In the past, it has always worked behind the curtain, obscuring its role, unbound, as a co-equal branch of government, to the open meeting laws, the Legislature has decreed for itself, and its creatures, most recently he Legislatively-created State Bar of California. Now, in the person of our formidable Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye, the Supreme Court is stepping up to battle in a way so public as to garner a very grateful “thank you” from the State Bar’s Executive Director Elizabeth Parker.
How will the Assembly react to SB 846? Plans are underway for the real possibility that there will be no dues bill this year and the Supreme Court will have to order members of the State Bar to pay a fee to the State Bar to continue its operations, just as it did in 1998 with its decision in In Re Attorney Discipline System. In 1998, the Court dithered even after State Bar staff was laid off and even after the Legislature adjourned without passing a dues bill at the end of August 1998. That will not happen this time. And in asserting its independence from at least one house of the Legislature, what other avenues might the Court explore with its plenary power in this area?
Quoting Senator Joe Dunn is probably not the most politic of moves, but right now, it looks like we really do have a new sheriff in town: our Chief Justice.