LANSING, Mich. — A new lawsuit challenges Michigan's requirement that lawyers pay full dues to the State Bar, alleging it violates their constitutional rights to free speech and association in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibits mandatory union fees from being assessed on public workers.
The suit was filed Thursday in Grand Rapids federal court by the conservative Mackinac Center Legal Foundation on behalf of Lucille Taylor, a 47-year member of the bar. She was former Gov. John Engler's chief legal counsel and a top Republican lawyer in the Legislature.
She said the bar's annual $315 fee goes to legitimate purposes such as investigating and disciplining attorneys. But the remaining portion, she said, can be spent by the 45,000-member public body on political speech and to back policy positions that members may oppose — conflicting with the 2018 high court ruling.
"Thanks to the Janus decision, public agencies can no longer require a captive membership," said Taylor, the wife of former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Cliff Taylor. "Attorneys should be free to choose whom they associate with as well."
The complaint seeks to prohibit the bar from collecting compulsory dues for non-disciplinary-related actions unless an attorney signs a clear and knowing waiver of his or her free speech rights.
Thirty-one states, including Michigan, have mandatory — or "integrated" — membership associations for lawyers. The Michigan bar said the suit is the latest of several around the country that attempt to equate integrated state bars with unions.
"That analogy is fundamentally wrong," it said in a written statement. "Michigan, along with most other states, has chosen to integrate the bar into the regulation of the profession in order to better serve the public and save taxpayer dollars."
The association also said it "is fulfilling its statutory responsibilities to the public as an instrumentality of the state consistent with the First Amendment and will respond to the pending legal action accordingly."
After Michigan became a "right-to-work" state by prohibiting workers from having to pay union fees, a conservative group in 2013 backed legislation to let lawyers opt out of paying mandatory dues to the State Bar. But it never advanced in the GOP-led Legislature.
The initial push came after the bar called for an end to secretly funded judicial campaign ads and urged the secretary of state to require disclosure of the spending that was increasingly dominating Supreme Court elections.
The Midland-based Mackinac Center Legal Foundation says no other licensed profession in the state requires an association membership to practice the profession. The bar was created by law in 1935 and is subject to the Michigan Supreme Court's control. It handles attorney licensing, character and fitness recommendations, referrals, coordination of legal aid and other services.
In a brief submitted in April to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering a challenge to bar dues in North Dakota, the Michigan bar joined five other state bars in defending their systems. They said the regulation of the legal profession is different because lawyers play a governmental role as officers of the court, and Michigan members can challenge and dissent from positions the bar takes on public policy positions.
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