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Bar fee bill signed by the governor

Gov. Brown has signed a measure to authorize a $10 rebate on all California lawyer dues and to change how the State Bar is governed. SB 163 had earlier passed both houses of the legislature by votes of 39-0 in the Senate and 68-9 in the Assembly. The bar board of governors is expected to act on the bill Oct. 5 by formally setting the dues at the authorized level.

The $10 rebate means most active lawyers will pay dues of $400 next year. The reduction is also available to inactive lawyers, who will owe $115. A check-off box on the bill also will offer the option of donating $20 to legal services for the next two years. The current $10 check-off produced $1.6 million in 2011.

The measure also calls for the transfer of $2 million in both 2012 and 2013 from the bar’s insurance affinity program account (non-mandatory dues money) to IOLTA-funded legal services programs.

The biggest change, and one opposed by the majority of the board of governors, will alter how many members the board has, how they’re chosen and how long they’ll serve. (The board will be called the board of trustees in the future.) The board will shrink from 23 to 19, with six elected lawyers (one from each Court of Appeal district), five lawyers appointed by the Supreme Court and two more lawyer appointments by the legislature. The number of public members will remain at six. Attorneys can be elected or appointed to one additional term but terms of the public members will be unlimited.

Creation of a six-person governance task force, opposed by many on the board as a kind of divisive super-board, is postponed for one year.

Bar president Jon Streeter asked the governor to sign the bill in a Sept. 19 letter, noting that concerns about the measure raised by the board of governors “ultimately went unaddressed.” Nonetheless, he wrote, the bill “reflects a series of thoughtful and practical compromises” including increased funding for legal services for the poor. “I believe that importance of avoiding any disruption to bar operations — which would seriously damage the bar’s ability to fulfill its core regulatory mission — outweighs any shortcomings that the bill may have,” Streeter wrote.

Streeter was referring to a seven-point memo that directed Executive Director Joe Dunn and bar lobbyist Jennifer Wada to seek amendments to SB 163 that included leaving the board membership at 23, standardizing three-year terms for all board members and eliminating the governance task force. Although the legislature did not agree to ending the task force, it delayed creating a new governance group for a year.

It also created a conflict of interest provision like that applied to members of other state boards that prohibits an individual who has “a close family member” who is a licensee of an agency from serving on that agency's board. That means any non-lawyer married to a lawyer cannot serve on the bar board in the future. The provision does not affect current public members.