LINCOLN — An Omaha state senator has taken a new step in his fight to remove the requirement that lawyers must join the Nebraska Bar Association to practice law in the state.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Wednesday, alleging that his constitutional rights are violated when the bar association takes political stands and lobbies lawmakers on issues that are contrary to his views and the views of other members.
The senator, after unsuccessful attempts to pass bills in the State Legislature to make bar association membership voluntary, petitioned the Nebraska Supreme Court this spring to make that change.
Nebraska is among 32 states that require lawyers to pay yearly fees and join the state bar association. Iowa is among the states that do not.
Lautenbaugh promised a federal civil rights lawsuit earlier this year if his other efforts were unsuccessful, and said a lawsuit might allow him to halt sooner the collection of the $335-a-year mandatory dues via a court injunction.
An attorney for two decades, he said he regretted having to file the federal lawsuit but is convinced the bar association will not change otherwise.
“The NSBA leadership has been on notice for more than a year that their activities do not comply with the United States Constitution,” Lautenbaugh said. “I had hoped they would change their behavior after I filed my petition with the Nebraska Supreme Court.”
Bar association officials have defended their practices. They maintain that any political position on bills in the Legislature is carefully vetted by a committee representing the state's 6,500 active attorneys.
The bar also allows individual attorneys to “opt out” of financing its lobbying activities, redirecting their dues to other activities and reducing what is paid to lobbyists by that amount. About 1,100 lawyers have taken that option, which bar association officials say brings them in compliance with a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on free-speech rights of members of such associations.
Lautenbaugh disagrees with that analysis.
He said Wednesday that the State Supreme Court recently ordered the bar association to submit a detailed accounting of how its spending on lobbying activities complies with the Constitution.
The court, Lautenbaugh said, also asked the bar to justify the constitutional soundness of its opt-out program in light of a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case, Knox v. Service Employees International Union.
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