Court Nixes Challenge to Use of Wisconsin Bar Dues

     (CN) – The Wisconsin State Bar did not violate its members’ First Amendment rights by using a portion of their dues to fund a public image campaign, the 7th Circuit ruled.

     To practice law in Wisconsin, attorneys must join the State Bar. But to join, they have to pay State Bar dues.
     “For more than fifty years, this system has been generating First Amendment litigation,” Judge Hamilton wrote.
     In the latest lawsuit, three attorneys objected to the State Bar’s use of their mandatory dues to fund a public image campaign aimed at improving the public’s perception of Wisconsin lawyers.
     An arbitrator sided with the State Bar, and the case was removed to federal court on appeal. A federal magistrate judge upheld the arbitrator’s ruling, and the Chicago-based federal appeals court agreed.
     “We hold that to withstand scrutiny under the First Amendment, State Bar expenditures funded by mandatory dues must be germane to the legitimate purposes of the State Bar,” Judge David Hamilton wrote.
     He noted that this standard overruled one of the alternative holdings of its 1996 ruling in Thiel v. State Bar of Wisconsin.
     “Because the public image campaign … is germane to those constitutionally legitimate purposes, however, we affirm the judgment in favor of the State Bar,” Hamilton wrote.
     Judge Diane Sykes agreed with her colleagues’ reasoning, but said a full panel of judges should decide if a public image campaign is really “germane” to State Bar’s goal of improving the quality of legal services.
     “In the end, while the panel has done an exemplary job of articulating the constitutional principles that govern this case, its application of those principles effectively dilutes them,” she wrote.

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