A scathing state auditor’s report released last month body slammed the State Bar of California for rushing disciplinary cases to shorten a longstanding and growing backlog; for settling cases with less severity; and for going $50 million over-budget for a building renovation. The report went on to say the Cal Bar “has not consistently protected the public through its attorney discipline process and lacks accountability.” See “Auditor blasts State Bar for inconsistent discipline of bad lawyers, shoddy finances.”
To the surprise of no one, the Cal Bar accepted the auditor’s findings and even unconvincingly claimed to have already been working on the problems — “before the audit began.” Right! And I was going on a diet when they caught me eating that pint of ice cream.
This is the same state bar Arizona Supreme Court’s opted to consult about reforming its governance structure. Sure the California Bar was ordered by the state legislature in 2010 to create a Governance in the Public Interest Task Force. And sure that task force was charged with recommending ways to “improve the existing system so as to best advance the goals of ensuring public protection.” But why would anyone think the California Bar’s ‘reforms’ were an exemplar worth studying?on State Bar Mission and Governance inexplicably
When I heard about it, I thought it was risibly ridiculous that Arizona’s Task Force would look to the bar bureaucrats next door for insights on structural governance reform. Only an out-of-touch legal establishment with blinders on like Arizona’s would come up with that brainstorm. That’s like asking Kim Kardashian about modesty or Donald Trump about hairdos.
A dysfunctional mess.
For some 30 years — and longer, the California State Bar has been a dysfunctional and deservedly criticized bureaucratic mess. No matter that California Bar leaders have paid lip service to reform for years. The criticisms are legion. In 1997, then-California Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a two-year fee authorization for the California State Bar because its actions had confirmed the charges of disgruntled members who characterized the bar as “bloated, arrogant, oblivious and unresponsive.”
An earlier audit in 2009 was critical of the Cal Bar over“negotiated salary increases over the past five years, an increase of $12 million in the operation of the discipline system — roughly 5 percent per year — while the number of inquiries declined.” And this was also the time period when unbelievably, a former Bar employee embezzled nearly $676,000 while no one was evidently minding the store. No wonder then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that allowed the Bar to collect its annual dues.
So this latest critical audit report is no surprise to longtime Cal Bar watchers. One inveterate and knowledgeable critic, the legal ethicist and law professor, Richard Zitrin, even lauds the legislative oversight of the Bar — something some Arizona lawyers gag on as anathema. “I’m personally glad that the legislature has a say-so over the bar. Many of the reforms to the legal system that benefit the public came from the legislature, while the bar has repeatedly protected itself rather than the public,” Zitrin commented at the Legal Ethics Forum Blog.
As for Arizona Court’s Task Force, there’s more embarrassment. Just months after the Task Force consulted with the California Bar’s then-Executive Director Joseph Dunn and per the meeting minutes, not long after Dunn told Task Force members about the Cal Bar’s reforms and how the board was “less contentious” and now “unified” and how the organization was “more focused, professional, and collegial” — Dunn was fired. I guess he didn’t see that one coming.
But at least the Arizona Task Force gave Dunn a round of applause for his presentation. So much for Dunn’s happy Kumbaya talk about the “proactive” California Bar and how its reforms are “the best thing that’s ever happened to the bar.”
Indeed, according to a Los Angeles Times story, “Accusations fly as State Bar of California leader Joe Dunn fights ouster,“ the California Bar is “once again beset with conflict, riddled with accusations involving expense accounts and ethics.” Nothing new to longtime critics of the California Bar. One California law professor told the newspaper, “The bar is just further descending into a banana republic. It is totally dysfunctional and should be unraveled.”
And since Dunn, a former state senator and trial lawyer, is not a man to take termination lying down, he is fighting back in the court of public opinion and in county superior court. He filed suit on November 13, 2014 alleging wrongful termination and claimed whistleblower liability and retaliation for allegedly reporting illegal activities and ethical breaches by high-ranking Cal Bar officials. Also see “Five things to know about the State Bar dustup with former director.”
Too bad the Arizona Task Force was so clueless about their next-door neighbors. Otherwise, it might have refrained from a Golden State consultation or ironically enough, according to its latest list of reform recommendations, from mirroring many of the same milquetoast ‘reforms’ adopted by the California Task Force. These underwhelmingly include maintaining compulsory membership; reducing the size of the governing board; changing the board’s name from “governors” to “trustees;” and adding new qualifications, term limits and related procedures.
Then again the legal elites around here don’t have to worry about independent state audits.