LINCOLN — The head of the Nebraska State Bar Association rejected the idea Thursday that the organization will be forced to refund thousands of dollars in past dues because of a recent legal ruling.
Michael Fenner, president of the bar, said that a Dec. 6 ruling by the Nebraska Supreme Court was not retroactive, it only requires the lawyers association to refund a portion of the dues already paid for 2014, not those paid in past years.
On Tuesday, the Madison County Board voted to request refunds for bar dues for the past four years. The county pays about $2,400 a year in dues for its attorneys, so the refund request adds up to several thousand dollars.
Fenner called the request by Madison County for refunds for four years “a nonstarter.”
“This wasn't a case where the court ruled that we were in violation of some principle or law,” said Fenner, a Creighton University law professor. It only changes the bar's rules going forward, he said.
The Bar Association, created in 1937, has been reeling since the court ruled two weeks ago that many of its activities could no longer be financed through mandatory dues required of practicing attorneys.
The bar has laid off four of its 18 employees, has formed several committees to see what bar programs will remain and is waiting to see how many attorneys seek a refund of a portion of their dues, as was prescribed in the ruling.
Nebraska is one of 32 states that require attorneys to join a state bar association to practice law. Iowa is among the states in which bar membership is voluntary.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha challenged the bar requirement, arguing that attorneys should not be forced to support activities that they don't agree with, including political lobbying.
The Supreme Court agreed in part, ruling that attorneys must still join the bar, but that they cannot be required to finance activities of the association that do not regulate the profession. Those voluntary activities include lobbying the State Legislature and programs that help attorneys struggling with substance abuse and that assist clients who've lost money to an unscrupulous attorney.
The bottom line is that lawyers who have already paid their $335 in dues for 2014 can seek a refund for all but $98 if they wish.
Madison County Attorney Joe Smith, who advised the County Board, said he gave board members three options in responding to the ruling, including seeking a refund for 2014 only. But the board voted to seek four years' worth of refunds.
Smith said he appreciates the Bar Association, but the ruling puts public agencies like Madison County “in a bad spot.” That's because they are being asked to use taxpayer money to fund the voluntary programs of the Bar Association, he said.
Fenner, the bar president, said he has heard from several law firms that plan to pay full dues, mandatory and voluntary, for 2014, and then wait a year to decide what they'll pay in the future.
As far as the Bar Association's future, he said it depends on how many lawyers are willing to voluntarily fund its programs.