Tales From The Left Coast


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I haven’t written about California lawyers and judges for at least a couple of weeks (“bowl of dicks,” anyone?). Yes, I know lots of readers could care less about lawyer life here in California, especially since our cut score is the highest, second only to Delaware, but to use the title of a 1960s Lesley Gore song, ‘it’s my party,” and the East Coast bias that ATL shows prompts me to write about life west of the Hudson.

The first has to do with the California Supreme Court’s order to have the disciplinary review court (the State Bar’s appellate process) review its decision overturning the trial court’s decision to disbar a San Francisco lawyer for defrauding an elderly client. The State Bar’s review department had found that the lawyer had not defrauded his client.

With me, so far?

Now the Supreme Court is telling the review department to take another look at the case. Given that the State Bar’s stated mission is public protection, I would not be surprised if the review court reverses its decision.

Another story: the Executive Director of the State Bar has resigned. Leah Wilson headed the bar for several years and oversaw the final steps in its de-reunification. Her resignation is effective January 17 and she is leaving to “pursue other career interests.” We have all heard that language many times before.

The past decade or so has been a tumultuous time for State Bar leadership. First, Joe Dunn was fired back in 2014 and then things got ugly.

After Dunn came Elizabeth Reinsdorf Parker, who began the task of dismantling the integrated bar that existed since formation of the bar back in the 1920s. Leah Wilson was Parker’s heir apparent, and she finished the job Parker started, not without her own set of controversies.

So, in the past six years, the State Bar has had three executive directors. While some might say that leadership turnover is a healthy thing, I think that stability and continuity at the top might be welcome.

The Bar must address many important issues in the coming years, including, but not limited to, the possible licensing of legal technicians, alternative legal service providers and the unauthorized practice of law, all sorts of legal innovation products, and last, but certainly not least, the bar exam cut score, which has prompted all kinds of consternation among law professors, law schools, law students, and those of us practicing lawyers who think that maybe the bar for entry should remain high. Those issues, not to mention having a good relationship with the Legislature that sets the dues bill, and others that we haven’t even thought of yet will consume the bar over the next decade.

For those of us who ever saw the movie “All about Eve,” (and if you have never seen it, shame on you) the classic line that Bette Davis says in the midst of a cocktail party seems apt. It will be interesting to see how the job description will read and whether there will be a nationwide search undertaken. Would you want that job?

Last and certainly not least is the special masters’ report released January 3 to the California Judicial Commission in the Inquiry Concerning Justice Jeffrey Johnson, an appellate justice on the Second District Court of Appeal here in Los Angeles. The report runs to almost 400 pages (I am not making this up) and contains the findings of fact and conclusions of law by the special masters, whose examiner heard 17 days of testimony from women who claimed inappropriate conduct by the justice over a period of years. Those women included two Court of Appeal justice colleagues, along with several research attorneys, a number of private  attorneys, and other women. The report concludes that the examiner met the high burden of proof necessary (clear and convincing standard) as to the truth of most of the allegations of judicial misconduct (here defined as prejudicial misconduct and improper action).

Allegations of intoxication at the Court of Appeal building and at events outside business hours comprise another category of claims against the justice. Again, the special masters found that the examiner had met the burden and that most of the allegations were true.

The third category of misconduct involves Justice Johnson’s demeanor toward his colleagues and staff on the court. The special masters found most of those allegations true as well.

So here’s what I don’t understand and probably never will: The special masters found that most of the allegations against Justice Johnson were true, despite inconsistencies in some testimony. But why would a justice on the second-highest court in this state ever conduct himself in a manner that could rise to a number of claims, let alone one? Is it the “because I can” rationale?

The special masters concluded that the justice failed to take responsibility for his actions. Maybe when your career, future, and reputation are on the line, you are loathe to accept responsibility. It’s always easier to blame the victims in these types of cases, and that’s what the special masters found here: the failure to take responsibility for the most serious misconduct. Where have we heard that before, and when do you think that ever might end?

Ultimately, and that time is probably not any time soon, the Commission will have to decide what to do about Justice Johnson. Your guess is as good as mine.

 


Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at oldladylawyer@gmail.com.



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