The case is Harris v. Quinn and has to do with whether it’s constitutional for public employees to pay compulsory dues to a union. According to SCOTUSblog, much of the discussion that took place during oral arguments in January revolved around whether the court should overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which was the first major ruling that essentially allowed public unions to exist and collect dues from government workers.
According to SCOTUSblog, both sides perceived the case “to be a severe test of public worker collective bargaining.”
Now, to be sure, Wisconsin’s State Bar is not a union. It is, however, a quasi-governmental body to which all attorneys in state must belong, and to which the majority must pay dues. There is no collective bargaining.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Keller v. State Bar of California (1990), did say “there is a substantial analogy between the relationship of the Bar and its members and that of unions and their members.” In its analysis, the high court relied on Abood.
That analogy did not appear to be lost on the bar during its Board of Governors meeting Wednesday afternoon. Executive Director George Brown told BOG members Wednesday that he and bar staff were awaiting the decision to determine any possible effects.
He also told the BOG that SCOTUS watchers think the decision will split the justices 4-4, and that Justice Antonin Scalia could cast the deciding vote.
BOG member Steve Levine, whose term ends Monday, is a longtime advocate for a voluntary bar in Wisconsin. He said the pending decision could affect the bar. It’s hard to predict, though, until the scope of the decision is revealed.
If the ruling is broad, for example, bar members could elect to only pay certain portions of dues. Right now, Keller dues – money bar members can get back if they don’t want to pay for legislative activities that don’t seek to improve the quality of legal services – are subtracted and returned from a person’s dues. In the future, a lawyer may be able to make that choice before the dues are paid.
Levine also said this could apply to other portions of now-mandatory dues. If the ruling goes to its logical extreme, it could mean that attorneys could choose not to pay dues at all.
In other words, this could be a boon for Levine and the rest of the voluntary bar champions.