LINCOLN — The state's lawyers association was reeling Friday over a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that promises big changes in the scope of the Nebraska State Bar Association.
The high court ruled that while attorneys still will be required to join the bar to practice law, they will pay dues only for activities that regulate the legal profession — such as administering the bar exam, continuing education programs and disciplining unethical attorneys.
Lawyers, the court ruled, should not be required to pay for bar activities and programs that are not related to that mission — such as lobbying the Legislature, providing help to lawyers struggling with mental illness or substance abuse and financial reimbursement to people who lost money due to an unethical lawyer.
That means Nebraska attorneys, beginning in 2014, will be required to pay only $98 in yearly dues compared to the current $335 annual fee.
Bar President Mike Fenner, a Creighton University law professor, said the ruling directs that all mandatory dues go to the Supreme Court, which established the bar association in 1937.
The organization, Fenner said, will now have to seek grants and voluntary contributions to keep all of its programs running.
“Under this opinion, we don't have any money other than what we can raise,” he said. “They pretty much changed everything. This was not done with a scalpel.”
The ruling came in response to a challenge mounted by State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, an attorney, to the mandatory membership requirement.
Lautenbaugh, who has also filed a federal lawsuit over the requirement, argued that lawyers' free speech rights were being violated by requiring them to pay dues when the bar association takes positions contrary to their beliefs on bills before the Legislature.
The court disagreed that joining the bar association should become a voluntary matter, but it stripped the mandatory obligation of the organization to its bare bones, leaving the bar to seek voluntary dues for “nongermane” activities and programs.
Lautenbaugh said he was “ecstatic” over the ruling.
“I just wanted them to stop compelling me to fund activities that I disagreed with,” he said. “I couldn't ask for anything more.”
Bar officials had argued that they had addressed free-speech concerns by allowing members to “opt out” of paying for lobbying activities.
But the Supreme Court, in an opinion written “per curiam,” or by the entire seven-judge court, decided that wasn't good enough.
The new rules laid out by the court instead allow lawyers to “opt in” to funding nonregulatory activities such as lobbying.
Leaders of the bar, which has 9,700 active and inactive members, met for four hours on Friday afternoon to sort out the implications of the ruling.
The Lincoln-based organization employs 18 people and has a yearly budget of about $3 million.
Fenner said the bar may have to abandon some of its programs, but that won't be clear until it's known how many lawyers will continue to finance them voluntarily.
“Close to everything will depend on that,” he said.
When asked if employees will be laid off, Fenner said it was too early to say. “It's Christmas,” he said.
Besides lobbying, other bar association programs that will now be funded voluntarily include the Volunteer Lawyers Project, which links low-income people with lawyers willing to volunteer their services, and the Lawyers Assistance Program, which helps lawyers with mental health and substance abuse problems.
The bar also conducts seminars for people who want to represent themselves in court and offers some financial reimbursement to clients who lost money because of lawyer misconduct.
“This not only hurts the profession, in my opinion, it hurts the public,” said Liz Neeley, executive director of the bar association.
Dues statements have already been sent out to lawyers for 2014. Under the ruling, they will be required to only pay $98, but Neeley said the bar will be asking members to voluntarily pay another $237 to fund their nonregulatory programs.
Nebraska is among 32 states and the District of Columbia that require attorneys to join the state bar association to practice law. Iowa is among the states in which bar membership is voluntary.
When asked if the ruling means a much smaller bar association in Nebraska, Lautenbaugh said he wasn't sure.
“What I think this will do is stop the bar from doing things that alienate members,” he said. “This does not have to be a bad day for the bar. It is a day when they stop taking their membership for granted.”