The California Supreme Court has issued its order in response to the State Bar of California’s request for a special assessment of fees. The Court predictably resisted the State Bar’s request for funding functions that have not directly related to the core mission of discipline. They did not rule out granting that request under some different set of circumstances, but “in light of the particular set of circumstances facing the State Bar in 2017” such an order was not justified. The Court encouraged the State Bar to seek “appropriate funding sources apart from the special assessment” to support the non-discipline programs of the State Bar that support public protection, such as the Commission of Judicial Nominees Evaluation, the Center on Access to Justice, and the California Commission on Access to Justice. In other words, the Legislature.
Any hopes that the Supreme Court would step out of its historically deferential role to the Legislature in State Bar matters were firmly dashed. The Supreme Court will not step into the role of the permanent funder of the State Bar; it will only act when the Legislature fails to. This decision exactly follows the path laid down in 1998, right down to appointing Justice Lui to act as special master to oversee the strict application of the funds to discipline functions. Here there more than a whiff of distrust that the State Bar can order its finances, distrust that certainly seems justified given the recent history money games at the State Bar, including the funds raided to the pay for the Los Angeles building and the questionable diversion of funds from the Lawyer Assistance Program to the Client Security Fund.
Now the spotlight turns again to the Legislature to address the long-term issues facing the State Bar, including whether all its various functions would be better discharged if not under the same roof. In the meantime, we have a cautious decision from the Supreme Court that maintains the status quo.