A Grandmotherly Asp Set To Strike
Buried deep within Governor Jodi Rell’s proposed budget is a provision that would get a lawyer disbarred, where the lawyer foolish enough to act on it. But the governor is no lawyer. She is the head of the executive branch. And she is asking the Legislature to help her rob a fund created by the judiciary for purposes of helping clients and lawyers in need. What will be done to stop her?
At issue is the Client Security Fund. This fund is a creature of the judiciary. It’s stated purpose is to provide relief to client’s who lose property or money as a result of the dishonest conduct of lawyers. It also funds a crisis intervention and referral service for lawyers who crumble under the weight of the world. Lawyers are assessed an annual fee to go into this fund, which, constitutes a trust.
The governor’s budget proposes that the state seize $2 million from the fund to help meet the current shortfall in revenues. It has folks in the judiciary seeing red, and not just red ink.
It seems a doubtful proposition as a matter of law that these funds can be seized without so much as wink and a nod to the separation of powers doctrine. We have three branches of government, after all.
To the judiciary falls the regulation of lawyers and the relationship between lawyers and clients. If the judiciary creates a fund by taxing lawyers and then puts those monies in trust to assure that both lawyers and clients are protected from the vagaries of life, what possible legal theory supports an executive or legislative branch seizure? I hope the judiciary is considering a constitutional challenge to this proposal.
Aren’t these trust funds? When a lawyer dips into to a trust fund for an unauthorized purpose, he or she faces disbarment, if not criminal prosecution. When public charities run afoul of accounting requirements, the Attorney General’s office has plenty to say. What precedent supports the Governor’s seizure of trust funds?
Of course, Gov. Rell is nothing if not shrewd, a grandmotherly asp if ever there was one, I say. So perhaps she is bluffing. Perhaps this feint at what looks to be a form of theft is merely a way of laying siege to a different fortress. "What? I cannot violate this trust? Oh, well, then I shall have to do what I hesitate to do: I shall tax legal services, even if that means the costs of those services shall increase for clients."
The economy is in tatters and the state’s budget is awash in red ink. Revenues are needed. But so are savings. What is the governor doing to cut state expenses?
I saw a recent list of the top 250 wage earners in state service. The salaries ranged from $1.6 million for UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun to a low of $217,000 for an emergency room physician. Buried within the list are quarter of a million dollar registered nurses and a whopping $400,000 for the state’s top prison doctor. Presumably all of these people also enjoy generous state benefits, as well. These salaries are, I suspect, well above the mean for lawyers.
There is something obscene about these salaries for state employment at a time in which many folks face unemployment and the loss of homes. The state’s safety nets will be stretched mighty thin in a time of crisis. Among those safety nets is the Client Security Fund.
Sucking the life out of the Client Security Fund makes no sense. Need a few extra million? Give the state’s basketball and football coaches a call. They’re swimming in cash.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.