Mandatory bar membership for lawyers opposed - Omaha.com
Published Friday, June 1, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:28 am
Mandatory bar membership for lawyers opposed

LINCOLN — In Iowa, law school graduates can hang up a shingle and take cases as soon as they pass the state bar exam and obtain a $185 license.

In Nebraska, it's more complicated.

The Cornhusker State, like 32 other states and the District of Columbia, requires membership in a state bar association to be a lawyer.

Mandatory membership in the Nebraska State Bar Association has been a 75-year tradition. It costs $335 a year to join, which includes $60 forwarded to the State Supreme Court to finance a team that investigates and disciplines bad lawyers.

But Nebraska's so-called “unified” bar is under attack.

Leading the assault is State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, an attorney for two decades.

After an unsuccessful attempt to pass a bill in the Legislature that would make bar association membership voluntary, Lautenbaugh petitioned the Nebraska Supreme Court this spring to make that change.

If that doesn't work, the senator has promised to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

“We're a right-to-work state. I shouldn't have to be part of a lawyers union to practice my trade,” Lautenbaugh said.

The effort has created a hot debate among Nebraska's 6,524 active attorneys, and already has prompted the bar association to review whether it is improperly taking political positions on issues outside its scope “to improve the administration of justice.”

Warren Whitted Jr., an Omaha attorney and current president of the Nebraska State Bar Association, said he believes the bar has a role to play in the legislative process and has a comprehensive and constitutional review process to select issues on which to take a stand.

If the state bar became a voluntary organization, Whitted said costs would be shifted to taxpayers and court fees from membership dues. The bar association, he said, would have less impact on issues that impact lawyers and the public, such as court funding, distribution of judges and discouraging frivolous lawsuits.

“As the Nebraska State Bar Association, we can hold ourselves out as speaking for the 6,500 active lawyers. People listen when we speak,” he said. “I would think we'd become much more politically driven (if it becomes a voluntary organization). We'd be taking positions on issues that would be much more controversial.”

The Supreme Court is taking public comment through today on the idea through its website and via mail. A public hearing may follow before the court renders its opinion.

Of the 41 comments received by Wednesday, 25 opposed Lautenbaugh's petition, with 14 backing the senator and two neutral.

That comes after the bar association's Executive Council unanimously voted to reject the idea, and the bar's 90-member House of Delegates voted 58-4 to oppose it.

At a hearing in April, however, more than one attorney complained that the bar poorly communicates with its rural members and has experienced “mission creep” in its activities.

Until the 1990s, the bar association oversaw attorneys who investigated alleged wrongdoings by lawyers and sought disciplinary steps through the Nebraska Supreme Court. But the court took over those duties, and some lawyers, such as Lautenbaugh, say the bar, with its 19 employees and $3 million-plus budget, has expanded beyond its primary job, which is to conduct the bar exam and screen applicants.

“I don't think they've been good stewards of the money we send them,” the senator said.

Lautenbaugh also said the bar weighs in on legislation that it shouldn't, and doesn't represent the viewpoints of all attorneys.

The senator sharply criticized Whitted this spring when he testified against a bill while three bar employees and two paid lobbyists for the bar sat in the audience. The bill was introduced by Lautenbaugh to redirect some court fees paid in Omaha back to private defense attorneys in Douglas County rather than sending it to the Lincoln-based Commission on Public Advocacy, a state-funded office of defense attorneys who take on major felony cases.

That office regularly takes cases in Lancaster County but rarely does so in Douglas County, setting up an effort to keep the money in Omaha — and generating a spat between Omaha and Lincoln lawyers.

Lautenbaugh said the bar should not have injected itself in such a local dispute. Whitted defended the bar's involvement.

“We took the view that people deserve adequate legal representation on major felony cases,” he said.

In the end, the bar won, and Lautenbaugh withdrew the bill. The bar later testified in support of a different Lautenbaugh bill — one that would limit frivolous lawsuits — but the senator said that testimony also was outside the bar's scope.

Whitted said he realizes people can disagree, but it is important that an organization representing lawyers weighs in on matters important to them.

He said an extensive vetting process is undertaken before the bar takes a position.

This year, for instance, the bar's paid lobbyists, Bill Mueller and Katie Zulkoski, identified 118 bills that they felt were relevant. Those bills were reviewed by a 45-member legislative committee, then the Executive Committee and then the House of Delegates.

In the end, the bar took positions on 37 bills. Whitted said that Nebraska is far from “the fringe,” pointing out that some state bars have taken positions on controversial social issues, including same-sex marriage and nuclear power.

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 attorneys take that option, which Whitted said brings the bar in compliance with a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave bar association members the free-speech right to not financially support a position with which they disagree.

Lautenbaugh said the opt-out provision is insufficient, and the Nebraska bar isn't fully complying with the court's ruling.

“They don't speak for me,” he said, adding that the voluntary bar association in Iowa appears to work just fine.

Iowa has about 9,000 lawyers, of which about 91 percent are members of the Iowa State Bar Association.

There are some powerful incentives to join the Iowa bar, which costs $210 a year. Those include free use of a legal research computer program called Fastcase, and free use of an online legal document library called IowaDocs.

“It's a real benefit to members,” said Steve Boeckman of the voluntary Iowa organization, which has three fewer employees than Nebraska's bar.

Whitted, the Nebraska State Bar Association president, pointed out that many of the lawyer-related activities conducted by the Iowa Supreme Court are undertaken in Nebraska by its bar association, under orders from the Nebraska Supreme Court.

He said that if Nebraska's bar became voluntary, the State Supreme Court would have to take over those activities, which include commissions that tackle the unauthorized practice of law, treatment of minorities in the legal system, and reimbursing people who lost money due to unscrupulous attorneys. All are currently funded by the bar association.

The Nebraska bar also provides a free, online legal search function to its members, and because it is a mandatory bar, can extend services to even the most rural areas of the state.

“To pay $275 a year to practice law is a small price to pay,” Whitted said.

World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan contributed to this report.


Contact the writer:

402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

Contact the writer: Paul Hammel

paul.hammel@owh.com    |   402-473-9584    |  

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues and helps coordinate the same.

Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as part of Operation Purple Haze convictions
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member has helped lead fight against Omaha violence
The thrill of the skill: Omaha hosts statewide contest for students of the trades
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
Teen killed at Gallagher Park was shot in head as he sat in SUV, friend who was wounded says
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
New UNO center strengthens ties between campus, community
Threat found in Millard West bathroom deemed 'not credible'
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
Nebrasks health officials to advertise jobs via drive-thru
Coral Walker named Omaha police officer of the year
Sarah Palin, Mike Lee coming to Nebraska for Ben Sasse rally
Prescription drug drop-off is April 26
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Rather than doing $250K in repairs, owner who lives in lot behind 94-year-old house in Dundee razes it
NB 30th Street lane closed
State Patrol, Omaha police conduct vehicle inspections
Bernie Kanger formally promoted to Omaha fire chief
U.S. House incumbents have deeper pockets than their challengers
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Kelly: New $24M UNO center embodies spirit of newlywed crash victim
Jessica Lutton Bedient was killed by a drunken driver at age 26 in 2010. Thursday, the widowed husband and other family members will gather with others at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to dedicate a permanent memorial to Jessica.
Breaking Brad: How much would you pay for a corn dog?
The Arizona Diamondbacks have a new concession item: a $25 corn dog. For that kind of money, it should be stuffed with Bitcoin.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »