SAN FRANCISCO — State Bar Executive Director Judy Johnson is stepping down, a victim of a year of unexpected lows, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of the organization’s dues bill.
Four members of the State Bar Board of Governors confirmed Monday that the events of 2009 led Johnson to announce her resignation over the weekend, though she won’t actually leave until 2011. One governor said that among many members of the board there was a “lack of confidence” in upper management.
“We’ve just had a variety of things happen, and she was the top person,” said one board member, who requested anonymity. “You get the credit when things go good, and you bear the burden when things go bad.”
Richard Rubin, a non-lawyer board member from San Francisco, said 2009 had “not been the most favorable year for the Bar” and that “external circumstances” certainly led to Johnson’s announcement.
“When things happen in an organization, it is not atypical to point fingers in certain directions,” he said, noting that he was disappointed that Johnson is leaving.
Johnson didn’t return a call and an e-mail message seeking comment on Monday. Her resignation is effective in February of next year.
Johnson, who took the top spot in 2000 and is the longest serving executive director in State Bar history, said in a prepared statement that she will work with the board to find a successor and help that person get up to speed.
“I will do all that I can to effect a smooth transition in an organization that I love and cherish,” she said.
Rumors that someone in top management might take a hit have been mounting since the governor vetoed the Bar’s dues bill in October, citing high discipline costs, the embezzlement of $675,000 by a longtime employee, and the leak that former Sen. Charles “Chuck” Poochigian was rated not qualified for an appellate court seat by the Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation.
The board member who didn’t want to be identified said there were several governors who wanted to seek new management, those who wanted to stay the course, and some who wanted to seek a compromise.
“Different board members have different things they point to,” this person said.
Micha Liberty, who is the California Young Lawyers Association’s representative on the Board of Governors and an attorney in San Francisco, said everyone was shocked when Johnson announced her resignation during a board meeting Saturday in San Francisco.
“It’s been a difficult period of time over the last year and a half for the Bar,” Liberty said, “and I think she made this decision reluctantly, but in the belief that it was in the best interest of the Bar.”
She said no one problem stood out, but it was the “cumulative” nature of all the events of 2009 that came into play. No one, she said, felt Johnson was responsible for any of the troubles.
“We just want to make sure we fix these problems,” Liberty said. “The board just wants to do a soup-to-nuts review of our practices and make sure we fix the problems.”
Board member Clark Gehlbach, a prosecutor from Placer County, confirmed that 2009’s hellish year appeared behind Johnson’s decision.
“Those issues were discussed,” he said. “The way it was presented … was the discussion was had between Judy and some of the other members of the board, and this was what was arrived at.”
Johnson, who served six years as the State Bar’s top prosecutor, took over the executive director’s position at a tumultuous time. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson had vetoed the State Bar’s dues bill about three years earlier, and the organization was fighting to get back into form after losing most of its employees for a long while.
Johnson has had the reputation as being a straight talker who brooks no nonsense and who isn’t afraid to stand up to Bar governors who try to meddle too much in the State Bar’s day-to-day operations.
“I will tell you,” Liberty said, “that the board gave a standing ovation and a round of applause” when Johnson made her announcement. “Everyone appreciates the years of dedication and service she’s given the Bar.”
In a prepared statement, State Bar President Howard Miller called Johnson “the heart and soul of the State Bar.”