Bill modifying State Bar’s discipline guidelines and licensing fees close to Governor’s desk

Robert J Hansen
California State Bar Executive Director Leah Wilson speaking at a May 2023 joint judiciary committee hearing.Photo by(Screenshot by Robert J. Hansen)

A bill that would maintain base 2024 California State Bar licensing fees for lawyers at $390 and impose new disciplinary-system requirements on the state bar and its leaders was passed through the Assembly policy committee on Tuesday. 

SB 40, now in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, would require Senate confirmation of future executive directors and general counsel hired by the bar’s board of trustees as well as setting a 4 year term limit for an executive director and would authorize reappointment for additional 4-year terms beginning next year. 

Senator Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, said the bill is a response to the State Bar’s mishandling of complaints against now disbarred plaintiffs attorney Thomas Girardi.

“There’s been a great deal of controversy concerning the state bar,” Umberg said at the bill hearing. “Thank you, Tom Girardi, for providing the revelation as to how much reform is required.”

State Bar leaders had asked for a $107 fee hike to cover employee salary raises and to address a structural budget deficit. 

Umberg said that amendments will now allow the State Bar to use proceeds from the planned sale of its San Francisco office to help pay its bills next year.

“I personally am not in support of an increase in fees,” Umberg said.

Currently, only the bar’s chief trial counsel George Cardona, who leads the agency’s disciplinary unit, must be approved by the Legislature.

SB 40, beginning January 1, 2025, would also prohibit the Chief Trial Counsel from issuing private letters of reprisal to an attorney accused of misconduct and formalize a diversion program for attorneys who commit minor violations of ethics rules.

Umberg also criticized the State Bar for spreading what he called “inaccuracies” about budget cuts occurring because lawmakers have not approved a licensing-fee increase.

The bar’s board of trustees meets in regularly scheduled meetings next Thursday and Friday.

The senator noted again Tuesday that the California Supreme Court can impose a special assessment on lawyers to pay for state bar programs. While Leah Wilson, the state bar’s executive director, has said previously that she has had staff-level discussions with court officials about seeking an assessment order, Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero has declined through a spokesman to comment on the possibility.

Umberg also defended his bill Tuesday from Republican criticism that a provision requiring lawyers to report to the bar colleagues who conspire to overthrow the government is a potential attack on conservative attorneys. 

While the provision was inspired by John Eastman, the Orange County lawyer now facing disbarment for pushing legal theories aimed at keeping former President Donald Trump in office, the requirements would apply to lawyers of any political affiliation, according to Umberg.

“This is not an indictment,” Umberg said. “This simply tells the state bar, hey, you may want to look at this just like if you … are aware of, for example, of a lawyer who’s stealing client trust funds.”

The California Supreme Court last month adopted a mandatory reporting rule requiring lawyers to report colleagues’ unethical conduct to the bar or a court. While the rule’s definitions would appear to cover acts of sedition or insurrection, Umberg said his bill’s provision makes that clear.

“As lawyers, we have a special responsibility to pursue the rules of law and uphold the Constitution,” he said after the committee hearing.

SB 40 is scheduled for a third reading in the state Assembly before being sent to the Governor’s desk.

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Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Focused on holding elected officials, police and the courts accountable to the people throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento County, CA

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