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LOS ANGELES � California’s most scurrilous lawyers could soon face the ultimate sanction � permanent disbarment from the practice of law. The State Bar Board of Governors took a step in that direction Saturday by voting to give attorneys no second chance at continuing their legal careers if they were convicted of certain crimes, or if they had engaged in particular acts of misconduct. The board also decided to make the reinstatement process more difficult for all other attorneys disbarred for lesser wrongs by requiring them to pass the bar examination for out-of-state lawyers. “We’re not talking about jaywalking here,” Fresno governor Paul Hokokian said during Saturday’s meeting. “These are significant occurrences, multiple occurrences of misconduct.” Both proposals, which need the California Supreme Court’s approval, have stirred up controversy since coming to the fore late last year. Supporters and opponents sent dozens of letters and e-mail messages to the State Bar. Proponents argued some lawyers have acted so badly that they forfeited any right to practice law, while others contended permanent disbarment is a cruel punishment that undermines the State Bar’s commitment to rehabilitating and reinstating attorneys. As proposed, State Bar prosecutors would be able to seek permanent disbarment if attorneys commit malfeasance in public office, steal from clients, corrupt the judicial process, commit insurance fraud, practice law while suspended or disbarred, or engage in unnamed conduct “so egregious” that permanent disbarment is warranted. Any act of misconduct after reinstatement also would be grounds for permanent disbarment. The concept of permanent disbarment, which had been dismissed in years past, was revived by the State Bar last year soon after the California Supreme Court chastised the State Bar in a discipline ruling for being too soft at times. In an opinion involving Pacific Palisades lawyer Ronald Silverton, the court said disbarment is normally the appropriate punishment for a reinstated lawyer who gets in trouble a second time. Whether the court meant permanent disbarment isn’t clear. Nonetheless, Scott Drexel, the State Bar’s chief trial counsel, defended the idea during Saturday’s 30-minute discussion by the Board of Governors and an earlier three-hour committee meeting on Thursday, where pro and con forces threw out their strongest arguments. “It puts people on notice that these offenses are the most serious offenses that can be committed by attorneys,” Drexel said. “The Supreme Court, in every one of these cases, is the ultimate arbiter of whether permanent disbarment is warranted.” Kicking a lawyer out for good tells him or her “you forfeited your chance to practice law again and you should turn to another profession,” Drexel said. Several people disagreed. Among them was State Bar President James Heiting, who said the proposal wasn’t fair to lawyers and also usurped the powers of the courts in disciplinary matters. “Isn’t this really saying we don’t trust the judges?” he asked. The Association of Discipline Defense Counsel, The Other Bar and the Los Angeles County Bar Association also opposed permanent disbarment. Speaking for the L.A. County bar’s board of trustees by speaker phone, attorney Michael Marcus said the proposal gives “too much discretion to the prosecutor, unbridled discretion.” As a former State Bar Court judge, he added, he knows prosecutors “have a tendency to always seek the maximum.” Debate also got heated over forcing certain disbarred lawyers to pass the bar exam. Under the concept, any disbarred lawyers who aren’t permanently banished would have to take the test given to out-of-state attorneys who want to practice in California. Los Angeles lawyer Diane Karpman, who represents disciplined lawyers, called the idea “Kafkaesque,” while her law partner Joanne Robbins, a former State Bar Court judge, said retesting lawyers doesn’t address the ethical problems that got them in trouble in the first place. “To impose the attorney exam on someone who may be a better lawyer than anyone in this room isn’t logical,” Robbins said. The bottom line for governors favoring permanent disbarment and retesting, however, was the feeling that both were needed to retain the public’s trust. “There’s symbolic value to be gained at a very minimal cost,” San Jose governor James Scharf said. A companion proposal that would have required disbarred lawyers to wait seven years before seeking reinstatement, rather than the current five years, was rejected on Saturday. The State Bar board’s Committee on Regulation, Admissions and Discipline Oversight approved the proposal on Thursday, but a majority of the board governors two days later decided that there was not enough evidence that an extra two-year waiting period would accomplish anything.

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