Schwarzenegger Vetoes State Bar Membership Dues Bill
President Says Organization Has Enough Money to Run Until End of Year
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed SB 641, which would have extended the State Bar’s authority to collect annual membership dues through 2010.
In his letter to the Senate, Schwarzenegger explained that he was returning the measure by Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, without his signature on Sunday “because the State Bar cannot continue with business as usual.”
State Bar President Howard B. Miller yesterday told the MetNews that “we take the governor’s concerns very seriously,” and that the organization was “going to focus intensely on trying to craft a compromise with the Legislature and governor” that takes the governor’s concerns into account “in the next few weeks.”
Miller added that the State Bar was “continuing to function” and had enough funds to continue operations through 2009.
His predecessor, Holly Fujie, commented that “all of the issues which the governor noted in his veto memo are all matters which the State Bar is working very hard to address, and has been all along,” suggesting that the veto was “an overly drastic response to issues which the State Bar is handling.”
But Schwarzenegger insisted that the State Bar must itself “be above reproach” since it is charged with regulating the professional conduct of its members, but “[r]egrettably, it is not.”
The governor opined that “inefficiencies remain unaddressed” by the State Bar, and that the group maintained a “political agenda.”
He cited a report by the State Auditor released in July which stated that salaries for State Bar staff have risen significantly over the past five years, and that the costs of the disciplinary system escalated $12 million even though the number of inquiries conducted declined between 2004 and 2008.
Schwarzenegger also noted “a lack of internal controls” which allowed a former employee to embezzle nearly $676,000 from the organization.
Sharon Elyce Pearl, the State Bar’s former director of real property, was charged in April with one count of embezzlement and six counts of filing false tax returns in the Alameda Superior Court. She faces up to nine years in prison if convicted of all counts.
Pearl was responsible for collecting rent from tenants who leased retail space in the building housing the association’s headquarters in San Francisco. She allegedly directed tenants to make rent checks payable to “PLOT-The State Bar of California” as early as 2002, then deposited them into accounts held by the Piedmont Light Opera Theatre, upon which she was a signatory, and transferred the money to her personal accounts.
The governor went on to reference the media leak of Fifth District Court of Appeal Justice Charles Poochigian’s “not qualified” rating by the State Bar’s Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission.
All JNE Commission proceedings are required by law to be confidential and qualification ratings are not to be released to the public prior to the governor considering an appointment. Poochigian, a former Republican state senator representing the Fresno area, was nominated Aug. 20, three days after the MetNews reported his rating in a column by Editor Roger M. Grace.
Miller then formed an investigation task force, chaired by William Gailey, a public member of the Board of Governors who is a former homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department and now heads a private investigation firm.
Gailey is joined by San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Northern California lawyer Richard Frankel and Orange County attorney Joseph Chairez.
Chairez is a member of the Board of Governors, while Dumanis and Frankel just completed three-year terms on the board, having passed up the opportunity to run for president.
Schwarzenegger further expressed concern that the commission was not complying with Government Code Sec. 12010.6(d)—part of legislation enacted two years ago in an effort to increase the diversity of the bench—in considering judicial nominees.
The legislation states, in part:
“The State Bar shall consider legal experience broadly, including, but not limited to, litigation and nonlitigation experience, legal work for a business or nonprofit entity, experience as a law professor or other academic position, legal work in any of the three branches of government, and legal work in dispute resolution.”
After Poochigian’s August confirmation hearing, a spokesperson for Chief Justice Ronald M. George said that he had “substantial doubts” the JNE commission’s conclusion that Poochigian lacked the “actual practical legal experience” required of an appellate justice took the Sec. 12010.6(d) factors into consideration.
Schwarzenegger said the commission “[b]y failing to follow the law, damaged its reputation for impartiality and, in turn, the State Bar’s.”
Acknowledging that the State Bar “has an essential role in the state’s justice system and must continue to oversee the licensing, education, and discipline of California’s lawyers,” Schwarzenegger urged the group to “take the time to re-examine the problems noted…[and] resolve these issues as soon as possible so the Legislature can reintroduce this measure early next year.”
In other news, the governor approved AB 590, making California the first state in the nation to establish a model program providing a right to counsel for low-income people in civil cases funded by a previously-approved $10 increase on certain court fees when a party wins a case.
The bill by Assembly member Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, will go into effect as a pilot project from July 1, 2011 until July 1, 2017.
In a statement from Feuer’s office, the chief justice was quoted as praising the legislation as “provid[ing] an important step in improving access to justice for those most in need,” since the “growing number of unrepresented parties in lawsuits imposes significant costs on the courts and erodes the public’s confidence in our system of justice.”
Feuer said that the law “helps ensure essential legal rights are not sacrificed simply because someone cannot afford to hire a private lawyer.”
He compared the timely access to legal services to preventative care in medicine, claiming that the measure will ultimately save taxpayers money.
Other bills signed by the governor included:
•AB 316, by Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Anaheim, which will, among other things, allow a wrongfully convicted defendant two years after being exonerated to bring a malpractice action against his or her attorney; extend from six months to two years the time following exoneration in which such a defendant may bring a wrongful imprisonment claim against the state; and eliminate the defense, in connection with any such claim against the state, that the defendant negligently contributed to his or her arrest or conviction.
•AB 1046, by Assemblyman Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, which will increase the homestead exemption from execution on a judgment to $75,000, or $100,000 if the judgment debtor or his or her spouse who resides in the homestead is, at the time of the sale, a member of a family unit, and one member of the family unit is without an interest, or with only a limited interest, as specified, in the homestead, and to $175,000 if the judgment debtor or the spouse of the judgment debtor who resides in the homestead is, at the time of the sale, 65 years of age or older, disabled, or 55 years of age or older with a limited income.
•SB 150, by Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, amending provisions related to sentence enhancements to eliminate the requirement, the validity of which is in question as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Cunningham v. California, that when there are three possible terms for the enhancement, the judge must select the middle term in the absence of aggravating or mitigating factors.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company