AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Three attorneys claim in a federal lawsuit that the State Bar of Texas is using members’ mandatory dues to help undocumented immigrants seeking asylum, coercing lawyers to support its political agenda in violation of their free-speech rights.
Lead plaintiff Tony K. McDonald, who runs a private law firm in Austin, sued the State Bar’s board of directors in Austin federal court Wednesday, seeking a declaration that a state law requiring him to join the bar to practice law in Texas violates the First and 14th Amendments.
“There is no compelling government interest that could justify this coerced association; indeed, 19 states regulate attorneys directly without forcing them to join a state bar,” the complaint states.
Even if Texas attorneys can be forced to join the State Bar, McDonald says, the organization is using his $300 in annual dues to encourage lawyers to volunteer to provide pro bono legal services to immigrants facing deportation.
This goes beyond the Bar’s “core regulatory functions” of investigating complaints against lawyers and filing lawsuits seeking disbarment or other sanctions against members it believes engaged in misconduct, McDonald says.
McDonald and his co-plaintiffs are represented by Cameron Norris with Consovoy McCarthy Park in Arlington, Va. Norris clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during the court’s 2017 term.
The Texas State Bar collected $20 million in dues in fiscal year 2017 from its more than 100,000 active members and 16,000 inactive members, according to the complaint.
By helping undocumented immigrants affected by President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, McDonald says, the Texas State Bar “has aligned itself in support of migrants and against the federal government,” an unconstitutional foray into politics.
The State Bar also has a government relations department through which it is supporting passage of more than 20 bills in the Texas Legislature.
McDonald takes issue with the State Bar’s support of a bill that would amend the Texas Constitution to recognize same-sex marriages. The Texas Constitution currently states, “Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.”
McDonald is general counsel for Empower Texas, an Austin-based conservative group that says the Lone Star State should eliminate property taxes and limit government spending.
One of McDonald’s co-plaintiffs is Joshua Hammer, a staff attorney for First Liberty Institute. The group focuses on religious liberty but is not involved in the case.
The third plaintiff is Mark Pulliam, an inactive member of the Texas State Bar who does not currently practice law but pays the bar $50 a year in dues to maintain his eligibility to practice.
The challengers say they would not have joined the Bar if it was not required in Texas, and that the group’s political advocacy should be funded by donations, not compulsory dues.
They claim they are “suffering an irreparable injury” from this “compelled speech and association” and seek an injunction ordering the State Bar to stop enforcing its allegedly unconstitutional policies.
Norris, their attorney, did not immediately respond Thursday morning to a request for comment.
The State Bar told Courthouse News it is not overstepping its authority to regulate attorneys.
“The State Bar of Texas is confident it is fulfilling all statutory responsibilities as the administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court consistent with the Court’s authority to regulate the legal profession. The pending legal action will be addressed accordingly,” spokeswoman Amy Starnes said in a statement.