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Northern District of California Court Should Not Impose California Bar Membership Requirement, Groups Say

Feb. 6, 2018

Northern District of California Court Should Not Impose California Bar Membership Requirement, Groups Say

In Petition, Groups Say Membership Requirement Is Unnecessary and Burdensome

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A requirement that an attorney seeking admission to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California must be an active member of the California State Bar should be eliminated, a group of 11 organizations and individuals, led by Public Citizen Litigation Group, said today in a petition filed with the court. Other petitioners, listed below, include 10 nonprofit organizations – representing diverse interests – and two attorneys. 

The groups argue that the requirement of California state bar membership should be stricken because, among other reasons, it is unnecessary for competent practice in federal court, where most of the cases involve federal, not state, law. In addition, the requirement is burdensome and expensive, both because it requires out-of-state lawyers to prepare and sit for the state bar exam and because California’s annual bar dues are $410. The alternative of pro hac vice admission (whereby a lawyer who has not been admitted to practice in a certain jurisdiction is allowed to participate in a particular case in that jurisdiction) is not an adequate substitute for the option of regular admission, the petition points out, because it requires a $310 fee for every case.

The rule is especially harmful for organizations that provide pro bono representation because they must pay the pro hac fees in every case and must find (and potentially pay attorney fees to) a member of the bar of the court to act as local counsel.

Instead, attorneys should be able to practice before the court upon submission of an application stating that they are a member in good standing of a state bar, along with the signed statement of a sponsor, as is required for admission to the United States Supreme Court.

The petition is not a lawsuit. It asks the court to change its policy; it does not ask the court to make a legal finding that the existing rule is unlawful. 

“This petition follows the many successful efforts by Public Citizen Litigation Group to eliminate burdensome and anti-competitive rules that harm members of the public in their efforts to find affordable legal services and protect their rights,” said Alan B. Morrison, the lead counsel on the petition. Morrison is the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest Law at George Washington University Law School and co-founder and former director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. “Regardless of whether the requirement that a lawyer must be a member of the local state bar to practice in a particular federal court were ever justified, it is not today,” he added.

The petition notes that similar requirements apply in the other district courts in the Ninth Circuit and in many other states. 

“We hope that the Northern District will grant the petition and that its decision will serve as a model for federal courts with similar requirements across the country,” said Allison Zieve, director of Public Citizen Litigation Group.

If the court were to deny the petition, the petitioners could seek review by the Judicial Council for the Ninth Circuit, which is composed of the chief judge of the circuit and an equal number of circuit and district court judges.

The petitioners are Public Citizen Litigation Group, American Civil Liberties Union, Association of Corporate Counsel, Cato Institute, Center for Constitutional Litigation, Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Class Action Fairness, Consumers for a Responsive Legal System, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Legal Foundation and Public Justice, along with attorneys Robert S. Peck and John Vail.

The petition is available here.