The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an order last week outlining its decision to deny a petition that would have reined in how the State Bar of Wisconsin can spend the dues that lawyers must pay when they are licensed to practice in the state.
The Madison attorney and former bar president Steve Levine filed a petition seeking a rule-change that would have required the bar to prepare two budgets – one governing expenditures of mandatory bar dues and the other governing voluntary dues. The proposal also would have also more narrowly defined the types of activities on which mandatory dues could be spent.
Levine has contended that some of the bar’s lobbying activities, including pushing for both an increase in judicial salaries and a change to the term lengths of state Supreme Court justices, go beyond what’s allowed by both case law and the federal and state constitutions.
The high court asked parties in the dispute to weigh in by writing to the court or by testifying at a public hearing in October. Immediately afterward, the court discussed the petition in closed conference. In December, some justices also met with bar representatives, Levine and others.
Ultimately, the justices voted in closed conference on Feb. 22 to deny Levine’s petition, and the court issued an order on April 12 explaining why it had chosen not to grant the petition.
The court was not persuaded that granting this rule petition would serve the best interests of Wisconsin citizens, lawyers or the court, according to the order.
The court noted that the State Bar had responded to Levine’s petition at its meeting in February by adopting two changes to its policies.
One change adds language calling on the board to take expenses incurred from direct lobbying of the Wisconsin Legislature and the U.S. Congress into account when calculating the amount of mandatory dues lawyers can choose to have refunded in order to avoid paying for political activities. That amount is known as the Keller dues rebate.
The second change gives all members of the bar, not just officers and members of the Board of Governors, access to online information about how much bar employees are paid.
The high court also clarified that it had interpreted Levine’s petition as a request to restructure the State Bar’s budget in a way limiting how mandatory bar dues could be used, not as a challenge of the mandatory bar.
Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote a dissenting opinion, disagreeing with the court’s decision to hold its deliberations in closed session and not disclose how each justice voted.
“The petitioners, the State Bar of Wisconsin, and the public should hear the ‘serious discussion’ on the ‘myriad of topics’ so that they can judge for themselves whether the court properly decided that granting this rule petition would not serve ‘the best interests of Wisconsin’s citizens, the lawyers of this state, or the court’ and whether revision of the petition is warranted,” she wrote. Follow @erikastrebel