Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof introduced a bill last week that would make dues to the State Bar of Michigan optional, mirroring the right-to-work law making union dues optional that GOP lawmakers passed in December 2012 despite boisterous opposition from Democrats and labor. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
Lansing— Call it the right to litigate.
The Michigan Legislature’s right-to-work war may be reignited at the state Capitol through a new legislative attempt to free attorneys from mandatory bar association dues.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof introduced a bill last week that would make dues to the State Bar of Michigan optional, mirroring the right-to-work law making union dues optional that GOP lawmakers passed in December 2012 despite boisterous opposition from Democrats and labor.
“It shows that these reactionaries have some principles,” said labor attorney Bruce Miller, president of the Miller Cohen law firm in Detroit. “They believe in welfare for freeloaders, whether they belong to unions or the bar association. It shows a certain consistency on their part.”
State law requires the nearly 41,000 attorneys actively practicing law to pay the State Bar Association $305 a year, $110 of which covers the cost of discipline enforcement within the profession. Under the legislation, the disciplinary regulation fee would still be required, Meekhof said.
“I call it freedom to practice,” Meekhof told The Detroit News. “It would give attorneys a way to voice their disagreements with the bar association, a logical extension of right to work.”
Some attorneys have complained in recent years that their dues are funding a political or ideological agenda as the State Bar Association has advocated for shining a light on undisclosed spending in judicial campaigns by special interest groups, particularly the state Republican and Democratic parties.
Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., a Republican-nominated jurist, says he believes there is value in having a mandatory attorneys Bar, but argues “First Amendment questions — of free speech and association — are implicated” by mandatory membership.
“The Michigan Supreme Court has attempted in the past to balance these competing interests, and it is probably time again to examine how the Bar’s ideological activities impinge upon its members’ First Amendment rights,” Young said in a statement to The Detroit News.
Eighteen other states have voluntary bar associations for attorneys, Meekhof said.
Republican barrister Richard McLellan said the proposal has flaws in that membership in the State Bar, a quasi-state government agency, could remain mandatory.
“It simply removes the mandatory dues provision, which leads me to believe it’s really more drafted from the broader implementation of the right-to-work principle rather than addressing the more complicated issue of switching to a voluntary Bar,” said McLellan, a veteran Lansing attorney.
Meekhof acknowledges the bill is partly a response to the State Bar of Michigan’s calling for disclosure of “dark money” in judicial races, which he worked to enshrine in secrecy through a new law Gov. Rick Snyder signed last month.
“They’re supposed to be unbiased, and they don’t seem to be that way anymore,” said Meekhof, R-West Olive.
The Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative organization that aired TV ads pressuring lawmakers to make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state, is pushing for attorney “workplace freedom.”
“There’s absolutely nothing sacrosanct about the profession of law to require them to be part of this organization,” said Greg McNeilly, president of the Michigan Freedom Fund.
Attorney Daniel Cherrin, who runs a public relations and crisis management firm in Royal Oak, said the legal association’s mandatory membership helps maintain high ethical standards within the profession.
“The fees are nominal, and there are other benefits of membership that not everybody takes advantage of,” Cherrin said.
Detroit attorney William Goodman opposes the legislation, which he characterized as politically motivated.
“The State Bar performs a valuable function, and that function is on behalf of the public,” Goodman said.
Requiring attorneys to be members permits the State Bar to be “self-policing” and uphold ethical standards, Goodman said. The proposed change would require state government to expand and take over that job, an added expense for taxpayers, Goodman said.
Universal membership also allows the State Bar to efficiently provide legal services to the poor, he said.
“Also, I think there’s a political motivation to this,” Goodman said. “It seems to be retaliation because the State Bar opposed those crazy tea party issue ads.”
The Michigan Supreme Court governs the State Bar Association and all attorneys in Michigan. Under the High Court’s regulation, the State Bar cannot advocate a position on a matter pending before the Legislature until 14 days after the bill is introduced.
In a statement, State Bar of Michigan Executive Director Janet Welch said the organization “has demonstrated in its 79-year history that a mandatory bar association is a great, no-cost benefit to Michigan’s taxpayers and the most cost-effective way to regulate the legal profession and protect the public.”