Despite reports of her absence from oral argument last week because of illness, Justice Shirley Abrahamson appeared to be on the mend on Monday, interrupting her colleagues on the court and drilling attorneys on their positions.
The hearing culminated with Abrahamson continuing to press the State Bar president-elect, Chris Rogers, to answer her questions even as Chief Justice Pat Roggensack instructed him to step down from the podium.
“You’re in a very difficult position, being told to do two different things by two different people,” observed Justice Annette Ziegler.
Justice Michael Gableman also weighed in, noting that Abrahamson was no longer chief justice.
But that was not the only source of discord at Monday’s hearing. Further tension came to the surface during the more than two hours of testimony the justice heard on a proposal to change how the Wisconsin State Bar spends members’ bar dues.
According to decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, mandatory dues can be used only to regulate the legal profession or improve legal services. As a result, the bar must let lawyers choose every year to take back the part of those dues that might otherwise be used for lobbying or political purposes. The exact amount to be refunded is calculated by tallying up the bar’s spending on activities that fall outside the approved uses.
Madison-based lawyer Steve Levine, a frequent critic and former State Bar president, has put forward a proposal that would have the bar prepare two budgets. One would cover proposed expenditures of mandatory bar dues and the other voluntary bar dues. It would also more narrowly define the types of activities on which the bar can spend mandatory dues.
Levine has contended that some of the bar’s lobbying activities, including pushing for an increase in judicial salaries and a change to the term lengths of Supreme Court justices, go beyond what’s allowed by both case law and the state and Wisconsin constitutions.
“All these political issues are those that members of the bar may have a difference of opinion on,” Levine said.
He also argued that having to pay mandatory dues to cover political activities is akin to having to give up his constitutional rights to association and free speech. He said he never agreed to forgo those rights when he was sworn in as an attorney.
In addition to Levine, the Portage-baed attorney Douglas Kammer, a former state bar president, and Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty urged the court to adopt the proposed changes.
Resistance to the proposal, meanwhile, came from several representatives of the State Bar and other practitioners, including Dean Dietrich of Wausau-based Ruder Ware, Rogers, State Bar President Paul Swanson and former bar presidents George Burnett and Steve Sorenson.
The bar and others have contended, among other things, that Levine’s proposal would reduce the bar’s ability to provide services to the court, the public and in-state lawyers.
“This organization is good,” said Sorenson. “It stands for something worthwhile. It does important things that no private organization could possibly accomplish.”
Roggensack, Ziegler and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley asked both State Bar representatives and Levine how the proposal would affect the court, noting that the bar is charged with collecting assessments that pay for the state’s Office of Lawyer Regulation and Bar of Board Examiners.
“What bothers me is that I don’t think this petition lists those items that are mandatory nor does it have anything on the effect on this court’s budget,” Roggensack said .
“Tell the court the financial impact,” Ziegler said later to Swanson.
Justice Michael Gableman, prompted by Kammer’s testimony that the bar had previously refused to supply information about employee salaries, asked Swanson if there was a formal process by which a member of the bar could ask for that information.
Abrahamson asked Levine what his proposal was trying to accomplish.
“Is the effect of your proposal to reduce the state bar into a voluntary bar?” she said.Follow @erikastrebel