Tuesday, September 11, 2001
Conference of Delegates Rejects Effort to Support Whistle-Blowing Government Lawyers
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Conference of Delegates on Saturday declined to sign on to proposed legislation that would change professional conduct rules to carve out an exception to the attorney-client privilege for government lawyers seeking to divulge some confidences.
Rejecting the plea of a lawyer and conference delegate whose job was threatened by disgraced state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush when she divulged his wrongdoing, the delegates opted to postpone indefinitely a vote on the controversial measure following a vigorous debate.
“This is a major proposition [for a change] in the rules of ethics,” San Diego County Bar Association delegation member Charles Bird said. “This is the first time the rules would allow us to divulge the secrets for clients.
We shouldn’t just be voting our guts based on a few speeches and a half-hour of debates.”
The State Bar Board of Governors already is studying a change to the Rules of Professional Conduct that would protect lawyers like Cindy Ossias, who divulged Quackenbush’s wrongdoing and almost lost her job in the process.
Assembly Bill 363, a proposal by Democrat Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, had been temporarily shelved in part to give the State Bar an opportunity to weigh in on the controversial issue of modifying the confidentiality for government attorneys.
The bill would not change the rules directly, but would call on the State Bar to adopt clarifying rules by next year.
It was not clear yesterday whether the assemblyman would seek to get his bill back on track in the wake of the conference’s decision not to act. Steinberg was unavailable for comment.
Conference Resolution 7-5 was proposed by the National Lawyers’ Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter in the wake of the scandal that led to Quackenbush’s resignation in July 2000.
Ossias discovered that the insurance commissioner had reached secret settlements with some insurance companies, allowing them to donate to private foundations Quackenbush created instead of facing penalties for alleged mishandling of claims growing out of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Ossias brought the information to the Assembly Insurance Committee, which conducted hearings that explored Quackenbush’s activities.
The then-insurance commissioner placed Ossias on administrative leave and moved to fire her.
Ossias herself brought the matter to the conference floor on Saturday, the second day of the 67th annual conference at the Anaheim Hilton Hotel.
The San Francisco attorney argued that the “real” client for public attorneys is the public, and not necessarily the agency for whom the lawyer works. Owing a duty to the public, she said, such a lawyer should be able to divulge information to protect the public—without fear of State Bar discipline—despite any confidentiality duty arising from the representation of the government agency.
Delegates generally offered sympathy for Ossias’ plight and her attempt to clarify professional conduct rules. Former conference chair Judith Gilbert went further, urging delegates to “get it out on the floor” right away.
“Where better to get an education and debate the issues” than at the conference, Gilbert said.
But most speakers expressed unhappiness over a process that gave them little time to craft compromises or discuss the ramifications of officially allowing a breach, no matter how limited, of attorney-client confidentiality.
“You will have an opportunity to comment on this extremely important rule” in the regular course of public comment as the matter moves through the legislative process, Bar Association of San Francisco delegation member Mark Tuft told lawyers.
In other votes, delegates turned aside a handful of proposals that opponents said would compromise free speech rights in an effort to protect children and others. Among the narrowly defeated measures was an effort to require schools to compile data on hate crimes against students due to sexual orientation and disability.
The conference also defeated an effort to require condominium associations to lift their restrictions against line-drying of clothes.
Following a debate filled with puns about delegates being “all wet” on the topic and “hanging the opposition out to dry,” the effort was solidly rejected.
But the delegates adopted, by a nearly unanimous vote, a measure calling on the Legislature to abolish the death penalty.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company