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Attorneys ask court to make State Bar voluntary

By Jack Zemlicka

After State Bar of Wisconsin leaders couldn’t agree on whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review its membership status, two attorneys took a more direct approach. Steven A. Levine and James S. Thiel filed a petition Friday asking that the court make the State Bar a voluntary organization.

The basis for the petitioners’ argument is rooted in Keller v. State Bar of California, 496 U.S. 1, 13-14 (1990) which dictated that two activities justify an integrated state bar and the collection of mandatory dues to support those activities. One is the regulation of the legal profession and the other is improvement of the quality of legal services offered by members of the bar.
Levine said the Wisconsin State Bar doesn’t meet either of those standards.

“The bar doesn’t regulate anything and Continuing Legal Education is all paid for by the people who buy it, so there is no basis for the bar to be integrated,” he said.

The petition also cited a 2008 State Bar membership survey in which 57 percent of members surveyed supported a voluntary bar and the fact that since 2005, three of the last six elected president-elects of the State Bar, including Levine, have supported abolition of the mandatory bar.

Last year, the bar’s Board of Governors failed to endorse by one vote a plan to petition to the Supreme Court seeking a review of the organization’s membership, essentially ending the discussion at the board level.

Levine said in light of the board’s decision, he wanted to get closure from the court on the issue. Assuming the court accepts the petition, Levine expected it to be heard sometime next year.

“Momentum has been building on this for years and if nobody did anything that momentum would just die,” he said.

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