The State Bar regulates and licenses the nearly quarter of a million attorneys in California, and is also responsible for punishing those who violate legal and ethical standards – but it is clearly not doing its job effectively.

In June, a state audit found that the State Bar fails to adequately punish attorneys who violate its standards. When the State Bar found itself facing more than 5,000 complaints against attorneys five years ago, the audit found that, rather than hire the necessary staff to handle the complaints, the Bar quickly settled cases and may have been too lenient on attorneys.

At the same time, the audit found that the State Bar’s income has grown so much that it had $32 million on hand. Instead of using those funds to hire the staff necessary to fulfill its duties, though, it purchased and upgraded a building in Los Angeles.

recent Sacramento Bee editorial noted that the sanctions imposed on some attorneys were so weak that the California Supreme Court – which oversees the State Bar – took the “extraordinary step” of rejecting 27 punishments for being too lenient. The Supreme Court increased the punishments in 21 of the cases, and actually disbarred five of the attorneys in question.

The effects of a dysfunctional State Bar may be far-reaching. No wonder California is consistently ranked as having one of the worst legal climates in the nation – bad actors are pemitted to abuse the lawsuit system and face few consequences.

Perhaps the State Bar’s regulatory functions should be the responsibility of the Department of Consumer Affairs, the umbrella for professional licensing agencies, as suggested by the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters.

At the very least, the State Bar would benefit from stronger public oversight.