The Conference of California Bar Associations: Lawyers Speaking Up to Improve California’s Laws

In California, there seems to be a statute or regulation covering every aspect of life and business – except when there is not. Sometimes those laws are incomprehensible. Sometimes the laws are impractical. And sometimes the law is an ass. As lawyers, we interpret and apply statutes day in and day out. We know just how frustrating bad laws can be. Fortunately, California lawyers have a unique way to improve the law through the Conference of California Bar Associations (CCBA).

The CCBA has existed for more than 85 years. During that time, it has been on the forefront of laws designed to protect Californians. The CCBA was one of the first organizations to propose laws against discrimination in employment and housing. In recent years, it has been a leader in proposing laws to protect gender nonconforming individuals, through laws that recognize the need for expanded access to medical care. The CCBA’s proposals have resulted in laws protecting elders, children, and even taxpayers. The organization also does more mundane work, such as cleaning up the Code of Civil Procedure and finding remedies for unintended consequences of the law.

The Contra Costa County Bar Association has a small but mighty delegation. Our delegates’ contributions in recent years have been interesting and varied.

  • Steve Steinberg worked to combat drought and improve our environment with a law that prohibits homeowners’ associations from mandating lush, green water-guzzling grass. Homeowners and residents now have the right to choose drought‑resistant landscaping.
  • Christina Weed has written several resolutions addressing thorny tax problems. While none of them have yet become law, Christina has provided the delegates with valuable insights into the impact of poorly drafted tax codes.
  • Don Green, a former Probate Commissioner on the Contra Costa County Superior Court, has attempted to remedy a myriad of problems in the Probate Code. One of his ideas that became law was the elimination of the mandate that the State Director of Mental Health issue regulations defining the term “mental health treatment facility.” The mandate had never been fulfilled, resulting in litigants engaging in futile searches for a definition in the California Code of Regulations.

This year has been challenging for the CCBA. The organization lost its lobbyist. The California Legislature operated under unique conditions to prevent the spread of COVID‑19. Despite these hurdles, this volunteer force of lawyers has been very successful this year. As of this writing, several CCBA resolutions have been enrolled and sent to Governor Newsom, including bills creating rights for transgendered, intersex, and non‑binary prisoners to be addressed by their pronouns, adopting procedures for electronic filing of reports by guardians or conservators, and preventing law enforcement agencies from authorizing the use of a carotid restraint or a choke hold.

The CCBA’s success is largely due to a rigorous process that every proposal undergoes before it is presented to legislators for consideration. Many of the resolutions begin with attorneys trying to solve real-life problems they encountered in their practice. Their ideas are first submitted as proposed resolutions. To be considered, the resolution must be sponsored by a local or specialty bar association or by 10 delegates. The deadline to submit resolutions typically happens in January or February of each year. The resolution must include sections describing the problem it is addressing, the current state of the law, and how the resolution would solve the problem.

Once submitted, resolutions are posted to the CCBA website. Once resolutions are posted, local and specialty bar associations are permitted to submit written opposition to the resolutions and may also offer proposals to modify them. Each resolution is reviewed in detail by the CCBA’s Resolutions Committee, a diverse group of approximately 25 lawyers drawn from around the state and having a wide variety of experiences and perspectives. For each resolution, a committee member analyzes the proposal, researches the existing statutes and case law, evaluates whether the resolution will effect the change the author desires, and prepares a detailed report recommending that the resolution be approved in principle, approved with minor amendments, or disapproved. These reports are reviewed by committee leadership, which may ask for revisions, clarifications, or even a change of position. Then, the full Resolutions Committee meets for three days to discuss the resolutions and prepare final positions, which are published on the CCBA website.

Many of the local and specialty bar associations, called delegations, go through a similar review process before attending the annual Conference. The delegations’ positions are compiled on a spreadsheet, which is available to all delegates. Delegations may discuss proposed amendments with the author before the Conference. Some authors accept amendments to save their proposal. Others may realize that nothing will cure the objections to the resolution and withdraw it, often to bring it back in an improved form the following year.

At the annual Conference, resolutions are debated on the merits. The delegates include prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys, civil litigators, probate attorneys, corporate attorneys, and government attorneys. Members of the Conference come from major cities and rural areas. They may practice in large firms or be solos. The diverse perspectives guarantee lively debate at the Conference. Resolutions are amended, new arguments for and against the resolutions are presented, and the entire body votes on whether to support the resolution.

Resolutions that are approved by the entire body are ready to be presented to the legislature. The author is asked to assist in identifying other groups likely to support the proposal, and those likely to oppose it. The CCBA’s legislative committee tries to assist the authors in finding a legislative sponsor and may work to find support among legislators. The author is usually asked to work with the legislator and may testify at committee or in connection with a vote. With some hard work, the author may end up with a signed copy of a bill.

If you are interested in joining the Contra Costa delegation for next year’s Conference, please contact Bar Association President Oliver Greenwood at [email protected].

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