California is the only state in the nation with independent professional judges dedicated to ruling on attorney discipline cases.
The State Bar of California investigates complaints of attorney misconduct. If the State Bar determines that an attorney's actions involve probable misconduct, formal charges are filed with the State Bar Court by the bar's prosecutors (Office of Chief Trial Counsel).
The independent State Bar Court hears the charges and has the power to recommend that the California Supreme Court suspend or disbar attorneys found to have committed acts of professional misconduct or convicted of serious crimes.
For lesser offenses, public or private reprovals may be issued by the State Bar Court.
Also, it can temporarily remove lawyers from the practice of law when they are deemed to pose a substantial threat of harm to clients or the public.
Lawyers may seek review of State Bar Court decisions in the California Supreme Court.
The State Bar Court conducts hearings and makes decisions and formal recommendations on disciplinary matters.
Since 1989, the court has used full-time judges appointed by the California Supreme Court, legislature and governor. The court is divided into two departments — a Hearing Department and a Review Department, headed by a presiding judge.
The Hearing Department
is the trial level of the State Bar Court. Five full-time judicial positions are split between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Supreme Court appoints two of the hearing judges, while the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Committee on Rules appoints one hearing judge each.
State Bar Court Hearing Judges hear and make recommendations to the Supreme Court about:
- California attorneys who have allegedly violated the State Bar Act and/or the Rules of Professional Conduct.
- regulatory proceedings, such as moral character admissions matters, reinstatement petitions, arbitration enforcement proceedings, etc., that are filed in the State Bar Court.
The Review Department is the appellate level of the State Bar Court, consisting of the presiding judge and two other review judges. All review judges are appointed by the Supreme Court.
State Bar Court Review Judges:
- review and decide or make recommendations to the Supreme Court in cases which one or both of the parties have sought review of a hearing judge's decision.
- exercise temporary suspension and other powers delegated to it by the Supreme Court according to rule 9.10, California Rules of Court.
- conduct discretionary interlocutory review on issues materially affecting the outcome of Hearing Department cases.