Legislation authorizing California’s state bar to collect up to $390 in dues from members in 2018 passed out of a key committee Tuesday without the drama or division that has marked proceedings in recent years.
Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee showed no appetite for the type of inter-house fight over bar governance that derailed last year’s bill and forced the state Supreme Court to order a $297 special assessment to keep the lawyer-regulating agency operating. This year’s legislation received bipartisan support.
“We are moving this ship in a very different direction than it has been in for decades appropriately and hopefully in the best interest of everyone concerned,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.
As amended Tuesday, the legislation includes changes to an organization that has been beset with complaints of unchecked spending, a lack of transparency and acting as a professional trade association rather than a public protection agency. It divorces the 16 specialty sections from the bar and organizes them in a separate nonprofit.
The bill shrinks the bar’s 19-member board of trustees to 13 members by eliminating the six positions elected by attorneys. Attorneys on the reconstituted board have a bare 7-6 majority over public members. It also eliminates the position of treasurer.
There’s a sunshine component in the legislation. The bill eliminates the Committee of Bar Examiners’ blanket exemption from California’s open meeting law, except for issues dealing with grading and preparing the bar exam and with potential law school trade secrets.
The bill also:
â–º Trustees would need to re-evaluate the bar exam every seven years and report the findings, including any recommendations to change the pass score, to the Legislature and Supreme Court. The bar is examining the validity of the exam’s pass score amid slumping success rates and complaints from law school deans and lawmakers.
â–º The bar must revive a legally required but lapsed background check and arrest notification program for applicants and members.
â–º A portion of the $2.3 million the bar earns annually on marketing credit cards, car rentals, insurance and other products would be transferred to legal aid organizations.
The bill has the support of bar leaders and even past critics of the agency, including the Center for Public Interest Law. Two representatives of the sections, however, said they had not seen the 22 most recent amendments until late Monday and were concerned about potential unintended consequences. Jackson said she would consider their concerns before the bill heads to the full Assembly for a vote later this summer.
Also on Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee approved separate legislation that would once again make public the names of those who pass the bar exam. The bar had released that information until the 2015 legislation, meant to protect the privacy of applicants, stopped the practice.
SB 690 will also give law schools access, with students’ consent, to the detailed scores of graduates who do not pass the exam. Law school deans have said they need the information to help the graduates and to re-evaluate coursework to improve passage rates.