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California Open Courts, Stable Bar Fee Bills Go to Governor

Sept. 11, 2021, 4:37 AM

California civil cases could be conducted remotely under coronavirus-inspired legislation that would lead to increased remote access in civil cases.

The court access bill (S.B. 241) was among measures court watchers and lawyers were following as the state legislature completed the first year of its two-year session on Friday. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has until Oct. 10 to approve all legislation regardless of the results of Tuesday’s recall election.

Courts could, through July 1, 2023, conduct conferences, hearings, proceedings, and trials, in whole or in part, through the use of remote technology under the bill lawmakers passed Thursday that also would permit parties to appear remotely.

Courts expanded remote access as the pandemic forced courthouses to dramatically reduce how many people would be allowed inside.

Another bill of interest to the legal community is (S.B. 211), the annual bill authorizing the California Bar to charge lawyers licensing fees. Active lawyers would pay $395 for their one-year license while inactive attorneys would pay $97.

The fees would be the same as the current year, “but more importantly, this is our opportunity to ensure that the state bar is performing its functions as a protector of the public interest and the attorney discipline issues as you may have seen that have come to the fore,” Assemblymember Mark Stone (D), Assembly Judiciary Committee chairman, said during a Sept. 7 vote to concur with the Assembly.

“This bill is us pushing the state bar to do a better job with attorney discipline,” Stone said ahead of the unanimous vote. The Senate unanimously concurred Sept. 8 and sent the bill to the governor.

The California Legislature oversees attorneys under the state Business & Professions Code and uses the annual bill to exert influence over the bar and the more than 260,000 active licensed lawyers in the state. The California Supreme Court oversees attorney admission and discipline.

Girardi Fallout

Lawmakers in the fee bill ordered yet another audit of the bar that would consider possible appointment of an independent discipline monitor to more closely review the agency’s discipline process and an independent ombudsperson to assist the public.

The legislature is frustrated by the bar’s failure to investigate and act on complaints over famed lawyer Tom Girardi. Girardi’s accused of stealing millions of dollars from clients over decades. The bar didn’t act on the complaints until last March. Results of an audit the bar conducted weren’t shared with lawmakers.

The state auditor under the bill would determine whether the complaint and discipline process adequately protects the public from misconduct by licensed attorneys or those who wrongfully hold themselves out as licensed attorneys.

The audit as lawmakers proposed must specifically analyze whether the bar takes reasonable steps to determine the existence and extent of alleged misconduct and has sufficient management controls, including conflict of interest policies, to ensure complaint investigations aren’t compromised by undue influence. It also must examine any data trends that could suggest racial or gender inequities in outcomes from the discipline process.

The audit must be completed and submitted no later than April 15, 2022, to the bar board of trustees, California Supreme Court chief justice, and the Assembly and Senate Judiciary committees.

In response to the charges the bar failed to act on years of complaints against Girardi, the bill would require the bar by Oct. 31, 2022, to propose case processing standards “for competently, accurately, and timely resolving cases within the Office of Chief Trial Counsel.” Complaints the chief trial counsel designates as complicated matters must be dismissed, the attorney admonished, or formal charges filed against the lawyer within 12 months after receiving a complaint alleging misconduct.

The Assembly added, and then dropped, a condition that lawmakers wouldn’t authorize the bar to charge licensing fees until a permanent chief trial counsel was named. The chief trial counsel investigates and prosecutes attorney disciplinary complaints.

The bar on Aug. 27 named George S. Cardona, a long-time federal prosecutor and interim Santa Monica city attorney. The state Senate must confirm Cardona’s appointment, but that didn’t happen before the legislature adjourned Friday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com; Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com