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Just when you think that there’s nothing more that the State Bar of California and the state legislature could do to insult California lawyers, humiliate the state supreme court and fuel public cynicism about the legal system, along comes convicted killer Eben Gossage’s California Bar admission brouhaha. Gossage, the son of a one-time prominent San Francisco family, wants a Bar card in spite of what Bar lawyers claim is a record of 17 convictions and a signed-under-penalty-of-perjury Bar application that officials maintain omitted more than half the offenses. He says he’s turned his life around. After the State Bar’s committee of Bar examiners refused to certify Gossage as “morally fit” to practice, a Bar trial court and a review panel found 2-1 in Gossage’s favor. They must have been impressed by the fact that he hadn’t killed anyone recently. And maybe they were also impressed by the support he’s receiving from local politicians. More about them in a moment. If the decision stands, it will further undercut public support for the legal system. This matter is not simply a question of whether Gossage has rehabilitated himself; it’s a question of public confidence in the profession. Gossage’s precocious criminal career landed him in state prison for forgery by the time he was 20, and eventually included convictions for heroin possession and homicide. In 1975 he smashed his sister Amelia’s skull 17 times with a hammer and then stabbed her corpse 45 times with a pair of scissors. At trial, he claimed that he was acting in self-defense. The jury convicted him of manslaughter, and he was locked up for two and a half years. After still more trouble with drugs and more time in state prison, he changed his career path. Later he started his own construction business and graduated from Golden Gate University School of Law. In 1993, he passed the Bar examination. A history of multiple serious felonies isn’t by itself a permanent disqualification from admission to the Bar. Several of Gossage’s convictions are for minor offenses. But some resulted from bench warrants for failures to appear — while he was in law school. That type of criminal on a State Bar application could quickly have sunk any other candidate. Gossage is now a successful real estate entrepreneur with good social and political connections. At the Bar trial on his admission, state Senate head John Burton, S.F. District Attorney Terence Hallinan, S.F. Supervisor Sue Bierman and S.F. Public Defender Jeff Brown appeared as witnesses on his behalf. The DA told the court that he’d be willing to consider Gossage for a job as a prosecutor. Even under the State Bar Court’s standard — clear and convincing evidence of present good moral character — the court’s decision was a bad mistake. The Bar routinely suspends lawyers who don’t pay their dues or take required MCLE courses. It’s not too much to require full and accurate disclosure from an admissions candidate with multiple felony convictions. The same standard should apply for anyone with Gossage’s criminal record, whether his background is Bayview-Hunters Point or the Town School for Boys in Pacific Heights. Nobody is trying to prevent Gossage from rehabilitating himself. But that doesn’t mean that he’s qualified for admission to a profession whose core responsibility is to uphold and interpret the law. The greatest outrage in this sorry mess is what happened to H. Kenneth Norian, the only judge to vote against Gossage. He was part of the review panel that heard the committee on Bar examiners’ appeal. Norian is also the Bar Court’s only non-lawyer judge. After his dissent in the Gossage case, Senate president Burton introduced legislation, SB 143, that abolished Norian’s non-lawyer post on the review panel and allowed the Legislature and the governor to appoint three of the hearing judges. All judges had previously been appointed by the state Supreme Court. SB 143 had a direct, unsubtle message: Don’t antagonize important legislators. The Supreme Court last month upheld the constitutionality of the new law, in spite of its affront to the court’s authority. Janice Rogers Brown’s dissent acidly noted that separation of powers “is not a task for wimps.” Burton has introduced new legislation this legislative session to monitor the Bar’s disciplinary process. Increased public scrutiny of State Bar operations is generally a good idea, but it shouldn’t be used as a tool by peeved legislators to intimidate regulators. And unless the Supreme Court assumes direct control over regulation of lawyers, admissions and discipline will be increasingly vulnerable to political pressure. Two years ago, the committee on Bar examiners asked the Supreme Court to block Gossage’s admission. The justices seemed skeptical about the Bar Court’s decision during oral arguments in May. They are due to rule any day now. Assuming Eben Gossage is ultimately denied admission, the Bar, the Supreme Court and California lawyers will still be left with Burton’s SB 143 as a distasteful reminder of the episode. One way or another, Gossage is going to make legal history, even without a Bar card.

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