Wisconsin Amends Bar Dues Rules After Free Speech Rights Suit - U.S. Seventh Circuit
U.S. Seventh Circuit - The FindLaw 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Wisconsin Amends Bar Dues Rules After Free Speech Rights Suit

It should come as no surprise that the members of the Wisconsin State Bar are a litigious bunch, but did you know that members of the bar have been challenging the First Amendment implications of their dues for over fifty years?

To practice law in the State of Wisconsin, lawyers must join the Wisconsin State Bar. To join the State Bar, lawyers must pay State Bar dues.

In 2007, the State Bar used a portion of members’ dues to conduct a public image campaign with the goal of improving the public’s perception of Wisconsin lawyers. Jon Kingstad, Steven Levine, and James Thiel (collectively described as the “Objectors”) objected to the State Bar’s use of their mandatory bar dues to fund the campaign as a violation of their First Amendment free speech rights.

At that time, Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule 10.02(2) provided that the State Bar could "engage in and fund 'any activity that is reasonably intended' to further the State Bar's purposes." Rule 10.03(5)(b), however, stated "the State Bar may not use the compulsory dues of any objecting member 'for political or ideological activities that are not reasonably intended for the purpose of regulating the legal profession or improving the quality of legal services.' Those activities must be funded by voluntary dues or other sources of revenue."

The Objectors took their complaint all the way to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the rule, finding "The State Bar may use the mandatory dues of objecting members to fund only those activities that are reasonably related to the State Bar's dual purposes of regulating the profession and improving the quality of legal services, whether or not those same expenditures are also non-ideological or non-political." The Seventh Circuit noted that Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule 10.03(5)(b)1 was too narrow because it authorized objections to the use of mandatory dues only for political and ideological activities.

Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court amended Rule 10.03(5)(b)1 to address the problem. The revised rule states:

10.03(5)(b)1. The State Bar may engage in and fund any activity that is reasonably intended for the purposes of the association set forth in SCR 10.02(2). The State Bar may not use the compulsory dues of any member who objects pursuant to SCR 10.03(5)(b)3 for activities that are not necessarily or reasonably related to the purposes of regulating the legal profession or improving the quality of legal services. Expenditures that are not necessarily or reasonably related to the purposes of regulating the legal profession or improving the quality of legal services may be funded only with voluntary dues, user fees or other sources of revenue.

Related Resources: