Tuesday, January 29, 2002
Task Force on State Bar, Conference of Delegates Agrees to Formal Split
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
The Conference of Delegates and the rest of the State Bar appeared headed for divorce Saturday as members of a task force discovered, to their surprise, that they agreed the two organizations had to go their separate ways.
Members gave themselves until May to work out the details of a split that would see the conference no longer a formal part of the State Bar, but still affiliated in a contractual relationship—and possibly able to retain some benefits that the State Bar provides, such as billing and coordination of annual meetings.
The session at the State Bar’s Los Angeles headquarters began with tension and low expectations, as lawyers and staff members warned each other that there was little chance of agreeing on the nature of the problem, let alone the possible solution. Members launched a long discussion on ground rules and fumbled for a way to get the discussion started.
But the atmosphere changed as each of the 12 representatives present was called upon to voice their thoughts on the troubles between the conference and the Bar. When the discussion concluded, only the two leaders of the sometimes-battling groups, State Bar President Karen Nobumoto and Conference of Delegates Chair Stephen Marsh, voted to continue exploring a less drastic change in the two groups’ current, more integrated, relationship.
Each of the other conference leaders and State Bar executives and governors insisted that the task force proceed on a single track—working full-bore to get a concrete split proposal on the table by their March meeting and having a final package ready as part of the Board of Governors’ strategic plan meeting in May.
“Steve, we have to live in the real world,” Nobumoto told Marsh after the vote.
Marsh asked that the group “leave the door open” to revisiting the relationship if formal split plans do not pan out. Task force members agreed that they could, but Nobumoto told the San Diego lawyer he had to “wake up and smell the coffee.”
Preparations to Split
State Bar Executive Director Judy Johnson agreed to have her staff study the current financial and organizational “points of intersection” between the two organization to prepare for a split and, if necessary, for contracts to reposition the relationship. But Johnson said the conference, as the exiting organization, should initiate the split.
“If you’re striking a blow for independence, you’ve got to haul water,” Johnson said.
The Conference of Delegates was long a formal part of the State Bar, funded by lawyers’ mandatory annual dues and the focus of the State Bar’s annual meeting.
Delegates, appointed by the non-mandatory local bar associations, worked to prepare resolutions that they
hoped would be approved by the conference as a whole and then lobbied in Legislature by the State Bar’s staff and Board of Governors with the expectation that the proposals would become law.
By far, the bulk of such resolutions deal with the nuts and bolts of law practice and the administration of justice-reforms that lawyers believe are essential but are too mundane to capture the attention of legislators who lack expertise in the field.
But the conference is known for an occasional foray into the political arena, with resolutions that would, for example, roll back the death penalty, legalize prostitution, or in the most extreme cases a number of years ago, commit lawyers to a stance on a matter of U.S. foreign policy.
Those more controversial actions have aroused the ire of State Bar opponents in and outside of the Legislature and played a key role in a lawsuit that ended with lawyers being granted a fee deduction for opting out of the lobbying effort for various resolutions.
Many issues the conference addressed intersect both the administration of justice and politics, such as a perennial effort to lift the cap on medical malpractice damage awards.
As the conference became a political lightning rod, then Gov. Pete Wilson cited its actions as one of his primary reasons for vetoing a fee authority and leaving the State Bar virtually destitute for more than a year in the late 1990s.
In order to regain the ability to bill California lawyers, the State Bar had to spin off the conference, leaving it to fend for itself financially.
Meanwhile conference leaders, who jealously guard a host of procedures and traditions that now constitute a distinct culture among lawyers, chafed at limitations the Board of Governors put on their “purview,” or the range of issues they could discuss. Restrictions came first with the lawsuit and were tightened with the revised fee bill.
The conference also has expressed resentment at the new bills presented by the Board of Governors-bills for the cost of State Bar lawyers analyzing conference resolutions to determine whether they fall within purview.
Conference members have initiated several efforts to formally split from the State Bar, only to opt instead for renewing the relationship.
A 1998 independence resolution was tabled, as were subsequent, similar moves.
The same thing occurred at the 2001 conference in Anaheim, as Nobumoto vowed to pull together a task force to work out the groups’ differences.
The underlying issue at Saturday’s session, as at most meetings on the issue, remained purview. The Board of Governors and State Bar executive and legal staff insist on maintaining tight control on the range of conference discussions, lest they be taken by legislators as actions of the State Bar itself.
But by the middle of the meeting members realized that they were on the same page on purview restrictions—it should exist, but an independent Conference of Delegates should define it on its own.
Members set the May deadline in order to have a proposal that could be ratified by the board, then move to the conference in October, leaving sufficient time for the formal split next year.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company