Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay)
Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay) (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

SACRAMENTO — In a strong rebuke to the State Bar of California and its leaders, the state Assembly on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected the 2017 bar dues bill.

Just eight of 80 Assembly members voted for the legislation, which held the line on annual dues and offered some modest changes to the bar’s governance structure. Lawmaker after lawmaker spoke out against the bill during Tuesday’s floor session, saying it did not go far enough to reform the agency, which has been roiled by critical audits and litigation.

“This is our one and only chance … to put teeth into the bill that need to be put into it to fix the bar association,” said Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine, vice-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “We need to see further action, and we would like to see further negotiations on this bill.”

The bill’s defeat puts into doubt the immediate future of bar dues-authorizing legislation. Friday marks a procedural deadline for passage of bills originating in the Assembly. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, could try to quickly amend the legislation and return it to the floor for another vote in the coming days. Other maneuvers are available that would allow lawmakers to push through a dues bill past Friday’s deadline, although they all carry political risks.

It’s unclear what changes specifically Stone’s colleagues are seeking in a re-negotiated bill. No one mentioned de-unification, a plan proposed by several bar trustees to split the organization into a regulatory agency and a nonprofit that focuses on promoting the profession. But Assembly members offered a laundry list of complaints about the bar, from past spending on executive travel to an alleged reluctance to go after those practicing law without a license.

“It’s time that we send a clear message to the state bar to let them know that we are not happy,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.

Stone amended AB 2878 on Friday to eliminate all six elected positions on the bar’s board of trustees. He also added language requiring a study of the bar’s underfunded Client Security Fund, an account that reimburses victims of unscrupulous lawyers. The changes would have also barred the agency from setting up nonprofit foundations.

Clearly that wasn’t enough for frustrated Assembly members.

“After decades of scandal, fiscal mismanagement, and dysfunction, it looks as though our current legislators have the courage and vision to insist upon a state bar that has only one job: protecting Californians,” said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Center on Public Interest Law, which led the opposition to AB 2878.

Stone pleaded with his colleagues to pass the bill to the Senate and allow him, Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Hannah-Beth Jackson and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to continue discussing possible changes. It was to no avail.

It’s unusual to see a bill receive so few votes on the floor; lawmakers will usually hold legislation at their desks until they are confident they have the 41 votes needed for passage. Stone seemed flummoxed by the tally, saying audibly “I don’t think I’ve ever been in this position before.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of Friday’s legislative deadline.

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