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California State Bar shaken by personnel issues involving two Black women

Antonio Ray Harvey | California Black Media

In less than one month, the State Bar of California has been roiled in high-level personnel

snafus involving two prominent Black California women.

In July, the California State Bar offered Fredericka McGee, a respected California

legislative attorney, the position of executive director. Then, in August, the organization

which serves as an administrative arm of the State Supreme Court and is charged with

protecting the public interest, reportedly rescinded that offer without an explanation.

McGee has been a licensed attorney with the Bar for almost 30 years. 

Then, last week, Debbie Manning, a member of State Bar’s 13-member board -- the only

African American serving on the governing body -- abruptly resigned midway through

her term. Manning was appointed to a four-year term by the state Senate in 2018. 

Manning, a “non-attorney” member, was appointed to a four-year term by the State

Senate in 2018. Previously, Manning was not only the first Black woman to join the

Legislature’s Office of the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms in 1977, she was also the first

woman to serve as Senate Chief Sergeant-at-Arms. She held that position from 2014 until


Manning’s resignation came just one week after the Bar met to discuss the hiring of the

next executive director with extended public comment in support of McGee after which

the board went into closed session but did not report any decision or action. Manning did

not give a reason for leaving.

Powerful Support: State Leaders Defend McGee at Board Meeting

At the Friday, Sept. 4 State Bar public board meeting, supporters urged the body to

reconsider its decision and renegotiate with McGee for the executive director position.

That meeting was delayed when an individual wrote the “n” word several times and other

profanity directed toward Black people in the Zoom meeting chat box, which caused the

meeting to be delayed for almost an hour.

Despite the delay, a diverse group of people spoke at the meeting in support McGee --

supporters say a testament to her rapport with lawmakers; attorneys of all colors and

backgrounds; business leaders; members of the African American community; leaders in

major service organizations, and more.  Among them were representatives of the

California Association of Black Lawyers, SEIU, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. 

Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), speaking on behalf of the California

Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC), was the first speaker to address the board of trustees.

Weber said, speaking on accounts of published reports, that McGee’s situation is one of

the reasons the CLBC talks about the “increase of representation of people of color,

particularly African Americans in all aspects.”

Weber said the Bar’s alleged withdrawal “brought tremendous concern” to members of

the CLBC.

“(McGee) had accepted the position, was making efforts to move, change her residency,

and basically move around for this position, and then all of sudden the position was

withdrawn,” Weber said. “We stand united in requesting that you provide the state bar the

best leader as possible, as we’ve always found that to be of the character and

qualifications of Ms. Fredericka McGee.”

In closing, Weber referenced the constitutional relationship between the Legislature and

the State Bar. The Legislature annually authorizes a “fee bill” to allow the Bar to

assess lawyers’s licensing fees, according to Ed Howard, a Sacramento public interest

lobbyist and long-time State Bar watcher.

A History of Turmoil and Mismanagement

Over the years, the State Bar has been under scrutiny for some of its practices and the

way its leaders have managed the organization. In 1998, then Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a

bill that would’ve authorized the agency to charge lawyers in the state annual licensing

fees to fund the Bar. 

A layoff of two-thirds of the Bar’s staff members was hanging in the balance and

the group’s attorney discipline system temporarily shut down for lack of funds. Those

issues were only resolved in 1998 after the state’s Supreme Court intervened.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration vetoed another fee authorization bill,

Senate Bill 641, in 2009. Schwarzenegger justified his action by basing it on a state audit

that discovered irregularities in enforcing attorney discipline, embezzlement of $675,000

by a former employee, and prohibited disclosure of the rating of a potential candidate for

the appellate bench.

In a written message, the governor said the Bar’s scandals “cannot continue with business

as usual,”

“As the organization charged with regulating the professional conduct of its members, the

conduct of the State Bar itself must be above reproach,” Schwarzenegger stated.

“Regrettably, it is not.”

In 2016, after the California Legislature did not pass a Bar dues bill, and the state’s

Supreme Court had to step in to authorize the agency to collect interim dues. The

American Bar Association reported on Nov. 16, 2016, that both Legislative houses were

at odds about the bar’s “reform measures,” introduced by the Assembly. The issue was

about a study of whether the bar should break into two parts, splitting the Bar’s attorney

discipline abilities from its trade organization tasks.

Last month, the Assembly and the Senate passed Assembly Bill (AB) 3362, a bill that

would again authorize the Bar to collect fees from California attorneys and

restrict its board of trustees from discussing issues about the Bar’s exams administration

in seclusion. At the moment, Gov. Gavin Newsom is reviewing the bill.

At the September 4th board meeting, Fabian Núñez, a former Assemblymember, who

represented the 46 th District in Los Angeles County and served as speaker of the

Assembly from 2004 to 2008, highlighted McGee’s professionalism and praised her

“level of dignity,”  depth of knowledge,” ability to “build relationships,” and “certainty of


Núñez said that within his nearly five-year tenure, McGee was his general counsel and he

watched her juggle and manage legal matters of the Assembly, the rules committee, and

judiciary issues. 

“It’s something unmatched in California,” Núñez said of McGee’s skill set. “Quite

frankly, it’s unique because she also possesses the skills that are so important when you

are managing a large organization such as the State Bar.” 

Gov. Newsom’s former Legislative Affairs Secretary, Anthony Williams also said in

support of McGee, “When I heard that she was a candidate for the executive director for

the State Bar, I was pleased and proud not only as a lawyer but also as a Californian who

knows the important role that the State Bar plays in public protection and administration

of justice. Fredericka understands that. I hope that you reconsider it, such a sensitive,

personnel decision,” Williams said. 

The board of trustees’s duties includes developing the guiding policies and principles of

the Bar. It comprises of five lawyers appointed by the California Supreme Court, two

lawyers appointed the by legislature, and six non-attorney members (four named by the


The State Bar’s Board of Trustees Responds

The governing body’s chairperson Alan Steinbrecher pointed out that the makeup of the

state bar is one of diversity and inclusion and at the end of the meeting sought to provide

examples of two prior African American State Bar executive directors. 

“In my work with the state bar’s leadership team and with staff, I know that the

commitment to diversity and inclusion is widely shared throughout the

organization,” Steinbrecher said. “As our former executive director said, ‘We want

diversity and inclusion to be built in and not built on.’ I also want to note that contrary to

some comments we’ve received, the state bar has been previously led by two capable and

talented African American women that served as executive directors.”

Leah T. Wilson, another African American woman, served as executive director for two

years before she surprised some when she left the role on Jan. 17 of this year.

The Hon. Judy Johnson, also a Black woman, was the State Bar’s executive director from

May 2000 to January 2011. Johnson is now a Superior Court Judge for Contra Costa

County, first appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012.

Before entering a closed session, the Bar’s board of trustees addressed the concerns of

McGee’s supporters.  

“There has been some speculation about a particular candidate who has been considered

for the executive director’s position,” Steinbrecher said. “We are not in the position to

respond to specifics reported in the press because the executive director’s selection

process is a confidential, personnel matter.” 

The executive director of the Bar leads the senior management team responsible for

various programs. The position requires the executive director to answer to the board of

trustees and advance its policies.

McGee was in the process of transitioning out of her role as vice president of California

government affairs and operations for the American Beverage Association (ABA). She

worked out of ABA’s office in Sacramento.

In addition, McGee is also the founding president of the Black Youth Leadership Project,

Inc., a non-profit organization that offers interactive legislative and debate programs to

African American high school students throughout California.

Alice Huffman, the President of the California State National Association for the

Advancement of Colored People, said in a written statement dated Sept. 3 that McGee

“has been recognized for her exemplary service by a multitude of organizations

throughout the state and has a stellar reputation in the legislative and legal community.”

“The California NAACP remains ready to stand with the California State Bar as we

ensure a fair and transparent legal system at this pivotal time in our country as we address

issues of social justice,” Huffman said in a statement  “Again, I wholeheartedly support

the California State Bar in its efforts to complete the contractual process that started with

Ms. McGee.”


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