Bar Association mandatory membership under scrutiny


The Michigan Supreme Court has appointed a 12-member task force to look into the State Bar of Michigan’s mandatory membership requirement.

The move comes after Michigan

Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof initiated legislation in January to make Michigan Bar Association membership dues optional. Meekhof has since equated the legislation to the controversial Right-to-Work law that has made union membership in Michigan voluntary.

In each of the 50 states, attorneys are required to pay a fee for the privilege of practicing law in that state,” said Alfred Butzbaugh, a former Berrien County judge and past president of the Bar Association who has been charged with leading the task force. 

“In the 18 states which do not have a mandatory state bar, attorneys pay a licensing fee to the state. In the 32 mandatory bar states, bar membership dues include the fee for the privilege of practicing law in that state.”

Butzbaugh said the task force will exam the state bar’s programs and activities related to its constitutionally compelled mission.

He said the Michigan Bar Association requested that the Michigan Supreme Court initiate the review to examine how the state bar operates within the framework of Keller v. State Bar of California, the U.S. Supreme Court case that defines the scope of permissible mandatory state bar activity within the First Amendment.

In the Keller case, a group of lawyers sued the State Bar of California over mandatory dues because they believed the money was being used to fund political and ideological activities with which they disagreed. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld mandatory bar membership in California but said dues shouldn't be used to pay for ideological activities.

“We will be comparing the state bar to the other 31 mandatory state bars to determine whether the state bar can better carry out its mission, consistent with the First Amendment rights of its members, and to identify functions that the state bar does not now do which would enhance its mission,” Butzbaugh said

He also noted comparisons to Right to Work are misleading.

“There may be confusion with Right to Work,” he said. “The 32 nationwide mandatory state bars are not unions; they do not negotiate with the employers of their members.”

Michigan Bar Association President Brian Einhorn said the association unanimously opposes the legislation.

He said the organization is looking for the task force to confirm that the Bar Association is performing the functions it is supposed to perform, that it looks out for the interests of the public and jurisprudence, and that it looks out for the interests of its members while at the same time not interfering with the First Amendment rights of its members.

He also said a move to voluntary membership would negatively impact the many programs and activities the Bar Association performs.

“I think that the bar performs lots of positive activities, some of which we would probably be able to do if we were a voluntary bar, as well, but we are doing it in a much more efficient and direct manner by being a mandatory bar,” he said.

The task force is required to submit its report to the Michigan Supreme Court by June 2.

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