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CPIL's Robert and Julie Fellmeth Quoted in Sac Biz Journal Story on State Bar's Handling of Disciplinary Cases

CPIL's Robert and Julie Fellmeth Quoted in Sac Biz Journal Story on State Bar's Handling of Disciplinary Cases

Sacramento (August 28, 2015) – University of San Diego (USD) School of Law Professor Robert C. Fellmeth and Center for Public Interest Law (CPIL) Administrative Director Julie D'Angelo Fellmeth were quoted in a Sacramento Business Journal article reporting on how the State Bar of California is failing to hold bad lawyers accountable. 

The State Bar of California has a $138 million budget to do two main things: admit lawyers to practice and keep bad lawyers off the rolls. At least on the second count, the bar is failing — and has been for decades, critics say.

In June, a critical state audit blasted the organization for inconsistent discipline and shoddy finances. Among other findings: the California Supreme Court kicked back 27 settlements the bar had approved in 2011, concluding they were too lenient. After further review, stricter discipline was recommended in 21 of the cases — and five lawyers were disbarred.

This is not the first critical audit. It’s the latest in a series of 14 over the last 20 years. At least since 1979, critics have complained that the State Bar lets too many bad lawyers off the hook.

“You cannot expect a cartel structure to regulate itself in the public interest — it just doesn’t happen,” said Robert Fellmeth, Price Professor of Public Interest Law at USD and current director of CPIL. “You’ve got to have independent oversight and checks and balances.”

A new reform effort is underway after a management shake-up — three new top executives from outside the organization take over in the next few weeks. Bar leaders accept much of the criticism and pledge to turn things around.

Lawmakers also hope to push reform through legislation in the next two weeks. Because the bar is a public agency, the Legislature must approve its dues amount each year, which gives it leverage.

The stakes are high. Law-abiding lawyers care about the health of their profession. Businesses and people who hire lawyers need assurance about the quality of the lawyers’ work — and recourse when something goes awry.

The State Bar of California is the largest state bar in the nation. It regulates more than 254,500 lawyers, about 185,000 of them in active practice. Lawyers who want to practice in the state have to belong. By one measure, California appears to do a pretty good job with attorney discipline. With 12.6 disbarments per 1,000 complaints, the state ranked No. 12 in 2013 among 40 states that report this kind of data.

It’s also the only state bar with a dedicated State Bar Court in which independent judges are hired full-time to rule on attorney discipline cases. Other states do it internally or use volunteer judges. But unlike other regulatory bodies — the state medical board, for example — the State Bar has no independent investigative body. And while courtroom clerks and medical malpractice companies are required by law to report legal action against doctors, there is no similar system for lawyers.

“The State Bar has nothing like that,” said Julie D’Angelo-Fellmeth, supervising attorney at CPIL. “They read about lawyers’ convictions in the newspaper.”

The bar is governed by a 19-member board of trustees. Six of those seats are supposed to be filled by members of the public, not attorneys. But half of those six positions — all gubernatorial appointees — are currently vacant.

That’s a problem, said Robert Fellmeth. He served as discipline monitor for the State Bar from 1987 to 1992 — the only time the bar ever had one — to help clear a backlog of cases. Also a problem is the fact that six lawyer members are elected by their districts, meaning they are picked by the attorneys they regulate, Fellmeth said. He wants to eliminate those six positions and have a supermajority of public members.

Even Fellmeth admits things are fixable — if the board makeup is changed. “You have to give up a little bit of your cartel power to do the right thing,” he said. “You are attorneys, after all.”

Read the full article here.

About Robert Fellmeth

Robert Fellmeth is the Price Professor of Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego School of Law, where he teaches and writes in the areas of children's rights, regulation, antitrust, and consumer law. Professor Fellmeth is also the executive director of both USD’s Center for Public Interest Law and Children's Advocacy Institute.

About Julianne D’Angelo Fellmeth

Julianne D'Angelo Fellmeth serves as administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law at USD School of Law and editor of the California Regulatory Law Reporter. She supervises CPIL's student intern program, team-teaches regulatory law courses with Professor Robert C. Fellmeth, and assists law students in their monitoring of agencies and drafting of articles for the California Regulatory Law Reporter.

About the University of San Diego School of Law

Celebrating 60 years of alumni success, the University of San Diego (USD) School of Law is recognized for the excellence of its faculty, depth of its curriculum, and strength of its clinical programs. Each year, USD educates approximately 900 Juris Doctor and graduate law students from throughout the United States and around the world. The law school is best known for its offerings in the areas of business and corporate law, constitutional law, intellectual property, international and comparative law, public interest and taxation.

USD School of Law is one of the 81 law schools elected to the Order of the Coif, a national honor society for law school graduates. The law school’s faculty is a strong group of outstanding scholars and teachers with national and international reputations and currently ranks 23rd worldwide in all-time faculty downloads on the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN). The school is accredited by the American Bar Association and is a member of the Association of American Law Schools. Founded in 1954, the law school is part of the University of San Diego, a private, nonprofit, independent, Roman Catholic university chartered in 1949.

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