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From the President

California as a harbinger

By David J. Pasternak
President, the State Bar of California

David PasternakAs we began 2016 on a very busy note, I am frequently reminded of the saying, “As California goes, so goes the nation.”

Back-to-back meetings of the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE) and the National Conference of Bar Presidents (NCBP), held annually as part of the ABA’s Midyear Meeting, followed the State Bar Board of Trustee’s two-day annual planning meeting. This year’s board planning meeting was held in Monterey in conjunction with the annual Conference of Chief Justices, which allowed the board to enjoy three inspirational talks.

Assemblyman Mark Stone, who chairs the assembly’s Judiciary Committee and this year will author the State Bar’s annual fee bill, began the session with comments at the board’s opening dinner session. He was followed by a lunch talk by recently retired New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann and closing remarks from our own Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Chief Judge Lippmann noted that California and New York are watched by other state bars eager to learn from and emulate them. Often the policies made in California and New York reverberate across the country, with significant impact nationally. Judge Lippmann inspired the trustees with his account of his efforts and incredible success increasing legal services funding in New York. His final comments were particularly inspirational: "If lawyers and judges don't stand up for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society... no one else will." Judge Lippmann added that "addressing these issues is part of what it means to be a lawyer. The ideal of equal justice has to be a reality."

In closing the trustees’ meeting, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye echoed the thought that much of what happens in California is important to the entire country. Encouraging us all to respond to day-to-day challenges, she reminded us that when she “took the helm” of California’s judiciary, the judicial branch was in crisis – struggling with an allegedly failed computer system, a budget "in freefall" and "an angry mob at the door." In the end, the crisis proved to be an opportunity to reassess and improve the court system. Justice Cantil-Sakauye’s remarks, expressing her confidence in the State Bar and its new leadership team, were a timely reminder that a challenge can be an opportunity to lead and achieve important reforms which might not otherwise be possible. She urged that the State Bar recognize – and embrace – the value of being … tested in the crucible of crisis."

In line with this advice, at its planning meeting, the Board of Trustees designed the final year of its current five-year strategic plan to move the State Bar forward and make it an even better organization than it is today. The four main goals of the plan are to ensure a timely, fair and appropriately resourced discipline system (our highest priority as a public protection agency); inform and educate stakeholders about the State Bar’s responsibilities, initiatives and accomplishments; improve operational management by emphasizing integrity, transparency and accountability; and support improvements in the justice and discipline systems. It was particularly gratifying to have our new staff leadership report that after careful review of all operations, it has been possible to prepare a budget for 2016 which will represent a 6.2 percent reduction in spending – without a diminution of service. I look for more such examples of achieving excellence with efficiency and economy.

Hosting this year’s NABE and NCBP meetings in San Diego was a special pleasure for me as your State Bar president. The opportunity to meet with colleagues from fellow bar organizations across the nation was particularly rewarding as we in California face important challenges in the coming months. Will we be able to restore funds for legal services for our least fortunate citizens? Should our State Bar adopt additional changes to its governance structure to better meet its public protection responsibilities? How can our profession best embrace its historic mission of support for the highest quality legal profession and an accessible and excellent legal system?

As I consider these questions, I am compelled to pause for a moment at the news of the sudden death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. To be sure, Justice Scalia’s views were not embraced by many, including me. Yet his commitment to the Supreme Court, our Constitution and the rule of law tradition we all embrace, were unwavering. Moreover, his death and the vacancy on the Supreme Court has lit a beacon on the justice system which is likely to continue for many months and perhaps throughout the coming presidential election cycle.

As we reflect on Justice Scalia's significant legacy, I hope we will each be inspired to recommit ourselves to support our profession and our incredible justice system and do our utmost to educate non-lawyers about both. And while we watch the partisan response to this Supreme Court vacancy, I hope that we also will do all that we can to protect the independence of the judiciary.