By Justin S. Beck, Oceanside, CA
Every California citizen is affected by our legal system in some way: voting, new or existing legislation, civil justice, criminal justice, family law, cities and counties, public works, or the companies we do business with. The law touches all. Some of us are more affected than others.
What happens when all three branches of government in California are intertwined without separation of powers, and one foundational knot frays or even breaks?
Per Wikipedia on May 1, 2023, “The State Bar of California is California's official attorney licensing agency. It is responsible for managing the admission of lawyers to the practice of law, investigating complaints of professional misconduct, prescribing appropriate discipline, accepting attorney-member fees, and financially distributing sums paid through attorney trust accounts to fund nonprofit legal entities. It is directly responsible to the Supreme Court of California, however, its Trustees are now appointed by the Supreme Court, the California Legislature, and Governor of California. All attorney admissions are issued as recommendations of the State Bar, which are then routinely ratified by the Supreme Court. Attorney discipline is handled by the State Bar Office of Chief Trial Counsel, which acts as prosecutor before the State Bar Court of California.”
The State Bar of California is no stranger to controversy. But three recent revelations may indicate the need for systemic change in California due to implications on families, politics, and business.
On October 13, 2022, “Justice Department Finds Civil Rights Violations by Orange County, California District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department in Use of Jailhouse Informants” where it was concluded by the United States each “operated a custodial informant program that systematically violated criminal defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law.”
On March 10, 2023, The State Bar of California announced it was compromised through bribery and corruption. Public employees were found to have accepted over $1,000,000 in exchange of favorable treatment to private lawyers who may have been engaged in criminal conduct against members of the public. These members of the public still have no recourse or forum.
On April 19, 2023, California Courts announced “Silicon Valley Judge Retires Amid Disclosure Scandal” where “Santa Clara Superior Court has announced the termination of the controversial Bench-Bar-Media-Police Committee (BBMP), and that the committee’s most recent chairperson, Judge James Towery, will officially retire from the bench on May 17, 2023.” Mr. Towery is former Chief Trial Counsel and President for The State Bar of California. Bench-Bar-Media-Police Committee may have been funded with public dollars but used for private benefit.
So, what do these things mean for everyday citizens like you and me?
Where the law touches all, these controversies may have more impact on California citizens than meets the eye. That’s because The State Bar of California is the sole agency responsible for protecting the public from its attorneys, and they are even involved in the nomination of judges.
Where the Board of Trustees of The State Bar of California is comprised of a majority of lawyers (seven out of thirteen members), and those lawyers are appointed by Supreme Court, California Legislature, and Governor of California – the bar as presently comprised may be unfit to fulfill its obligations of public protection. It also may lack separation of power necessary in a democracy.
For Californians to achieve their highest personal, educational, and economic success – California may need sweeping changes to The State Bar of California as we know it today.
Consider these facts:
- Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) is a five-member, independent, non-partisan commission responsible for administering the Political Reform Act (which was put in place after the Watergate scandal). It has no jurisdiction over The State Bar of California.
- California State Auditor “reports are unbiased and based on an objective evaluation of the evidence [they] collect.” California State Auditor provides financial and operational oversight of state agencies. It has no jurisdiction over The State Bar of California.
- Of California’s 482 cities and 58 counties, each generally has a city or county attorney. These attorneys are licensed and controlled by The State Bar of California.
- Legislative counsel for state Legislature shapes every law passed in our state. As many as 20% of State legislators are lawyers licensed and controlled by The State Bar of California.
- Every county has a district attorney licensed and controlled by The State Bar of California.
- Every public defender is licensed and controlled by The State Bar of California.
- U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) has a headquarters in Los Angeles, where all federal regulator attorneys are licensed and controlled by The State Bar of California.
- California Attorney General is licensed and controlled by The State Bar of California.
- U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Central District of California alone features approximately 264 Assistant U.S. Attorneys licensed and controlled by The State Bar of California.
We are the only state with “State Bar Court,” inaccessible to the public – whose operations are exclusively controlled by other lawyers licensed and controlled by The State Bar of California.
To protect the public and ensure accountability, The State Bar of California must be reformed.
1) FPPC and California State Auditor must possess jurisdiction over The State Bar of California.
2) Lawyers and the general public must have access to file disciplinary actions in State Bar Court.
3) Courts of Appeal must be made available to review State Bar Court decisions on discipline.
4) Courts of Appeal must be made available to petition by writ as alternative to State Bar Court.
5) California Legislature should pay members of the public who suffered damages.