Michigan GOP Senator Sponsors Bill Out of Petty Retaliation


Petty Legislating

Whose got the biggest pair in Lansing?

Possibly Sen. Arlan Meekhof (R-30). Today, in a somewhat ballsy, and an arguably immature and fiscally irresponsible move, he decided to pick a fight with the entire Michigan Bar Association — all 43,600 members, because they had the gall to disagree with him.

He introduced a bill, with no additional supporting sponsors, that would impose a non-union version of right-to-work on the state’s lawyers. SB-743 would make membership in the association optional, and theoretically hit them in the pocketbook in the form of lost dues.

Why “fiscally irresponsible”?  Under current law, Bar Association membership is required to be allowed to practice law in Michigan, and the state’s Attorney Discipline Board relies on coordination with the Bar Association in investigations of misconduct among its members. To permit lawyers to opt-out of the Bar, would put them in a special category where there is no formal mechanism for initiating disciplinary action. The state would have to set-up a separate fact-finding group — at taxpayer expense.

Last September, when the crowd at the 30th Biennial Republican Leadership Conference was snickering over their Chivas Regal about this latest scheme to stick-it to lawyers, apparently some of them took the idea more seriously than others. At the time, Meekhof had a piece of campaign finance legislation in the wings that was poised for introduction in October, which included language to legislatively codify dark money — something the Bar Association had been fighting against.

Membership to the Bar Association requires dues of only $300 a year. Yet, Greg McNeilly, president of the Michigan Freedom Fund, claims to be deeply concerned about the plight of lawyers in the state. MLive reports he said:

“They shouldn’t be second-class citizens. We need to give them the freedom to practice. Other states do that. They don’t have compulsory, mandatory bars. So why should Michigan? We need to be the freest, best place for anybody to practice any profession.”

Bruce Courtade, former president of the Michigan Bar, replied with this:

“My response was, we’re not a union. We’re not an employer. There are so many reasons for us to remain a compulsory, mandatory bar, including the fact that there is a discipline system set up that the profession itself is regulating. So it would require setting up a new system to do that.

There would be so many initiatives that benefit the justice system that would be compromised if we went to a voluntary bar. I think it would be really unwise.”

Meekhof’s Big Grudge

The 43,600 members of State Bar of Michigan don’t take kindly to attacks on the integrity of their organization or against their profession as a whole — especially when it comes to dark money spent on judicial campaigns.

In what turned-out to be an unsuccessful effort to curb undisclosed money, last September the Bar Association had filed a formal request with Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to require public disclosure of all donors to third-party issue ads in judicial races. The Michigan Bar was joined by the Brennan Center for Justice and the watchdog organization, Justice at Stake, in demanding accountability in judicial issue ad spending.

At the same time the Michigan Bar made its formal request, Meekhof was making the rounds trying to sell his plan to do just the opposite — he wished to further obfuscate campaign funding in Michigan. In the end, the Senator won the policy battle when his controversial bill was recently signed into law — Public Act – 252 doubled the amount individuals may give to a candidate, and legislatively codified non-disclosure of individual contributions to issue ads, aka “dark money”. Rich Robinson, of the watchdog group Michigan Campaign Finance Network, described Meekhof’s bill thus:

“The bill now attempts to preclude any possibility for disclosure of the millions of dollars of dark money in our state campaigns. The message from Sen. Meekhof and his colleagues who supported this bill is, just let money have its way in politics – without limits and without accountability.”

It’s no secret that there is much cross-pollination between shadowy third-party donors and right-to-work advocates — a situation that casts a new spin on the right-to-work push on the Michigan Bar Association.

As we previously reported, Michigan judicial races are among the worst in dark money spending. Rich Robinson reported that in the 2012 election, Michigan judicial races were, by and large, bought and paid for by shadowy third-party issue ads. Robinson found that “Just 25% of $18.6M spent was reported to the State”. That’s $14 million in dark money. The concern is that, not only are these judicial seats for sale, but we don’t know who’s buying them, and therefore won’t be able to detect bias or need for recusal.

The bulk of the money is usually spent on the Supreme Court races, but more recently a fight for the 6th Circuit Court became costly when, in addition to the $725,000 reported by the candidates, $2 million was spent by Washington D.C. players.

As Democracy Tree reported in 2012, Supreme Court contests produce more issue ads than other political races in Michigan because judicial candidates are bound to an entirely different set of campaign rules which hobble their ability to personally sling the mud, so they count on third parties to do all their dirty work.  These races have a history of being a hotbed for outright absurdities and improprieties in campaign issue ads.

The hubris of today’s legislation simply reeks of retaliation. Indeed, the stench of animus should serve as a warning to GOP lawmakers to leave this one to rot in committee.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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9 Responses to Michigan GOP Senator Sponsors Bill Out of Petty Retaliation

  1. Susan Satterfield says:

    I am sick of these idiot’s. Vote them out n November. We need our State back

  2. Chris says:

    Why is he allowed to waste our tax dollars this way? He should be penalized half his salary of the year for wasting our money.

  3. Bob says:

    I’m a practicing attorney in Michigan, and I am required to be a member of the MI Bar and to contribute annual fees in order to practice law in Michigan. The article states: “Sen. Arlan Meekhof . . . decided to pick a fight with the entire Michigan Bar Association — all 43,600 members, because they had the gall to disagree with him.”

    I believe this statement is factually incorrect. I STRONGLY support Mr. Meekhof’s bill, and I suspect I could find many other attorneys who do so as well by merely walking around the office and asking. I do not mind paying for legitimate functions of the state bar, but I do not want to be forced to associate with or support in any way an organization that regularly takes political positions I disagree with and lobbies for these positions.

    The article also states “The 43,600 members of State Bar of Michigan don’t take kindly to attacks on the integrity of their organization or against their profession as a whole — especially when it comes to dark money spent on judicial campaigns.”

    This type of forced association with various political issues is precisely why I abhor mandatory bar membership. It is simply not true that 43,600 members of the state bar acted in unison on this issue, or virtually any other political issue taken up by the state bar of Michigan.

    Please do not make the mistaken assumption that being forced to be a member of an organization in order to practice one’s chosen profession means that every member of that organization agrees with every political position taken by that organization. Given the choice, I would VERY STRONGLY prefer to have no association with the state bar of Michigan whatsoever.

    I’ve opposed political lobbying by the Michigan state bar for many years, and my position has nothing to do with “dark money”. People should be free to speak and lobby on this issue any way they wish, but people should not be forced to associate with an organization that takes specific political positions.

  4. Janis says:

    This will divide the lawyers into 2 categories: Corporate and People’s. Those who align with the John Birch Society will have no issue in ending membership dues. They don’t need the Legal Society – they have Koch’s funding and jobs forever in the Koch Regime.

    • admin says:

      Yes Janis,

      Although no one has the exact numbers, it is probably safe to say that few attorneys support this initiative. Far right Republicans in Michigan know which law firms are friendly. Many among the profession aren’t wild about GOP lawmakers because of the constant assault of tort reform. If the bill becomes law, lawyers that opt-out will be few, and professional pariahs. My guess is that this bill hasn’t a chance for three reasons: 1. It has no co-sponsors, 2. Snyder probably won’t sign it in an election year, unless they lame-duck it, and 3. The bill is incomplete — it doesn’t address the disciplinary issues, particularly the funding problem.

      There was an AP piece this morning in which Meekhof was defending the legislation, claiming it wasn’t meant to interrupt funding of the discipline board…well, it that’s the case, why didn’t he include a mechanism in the bill? (Probably, because a low-level staffer wrote it, and not the writing team). If it’s to pass, it needs an overhaul.


  5. Bob says:

    Between 1991 and 1993, the Michigan bar allowed dissenting lawyers to deduct the portion of their dues that was used for political lobbying. In 1991, 24% of bar members opted out. By 1993, 48% of the lawyers opted out. The leadership of the Michigan bar association quickly took steps to eliminate opting out.

    This is a long standing issue in Michigan, and the state bar has tenaciously resisted efforts by it’s members to disentangle the bar from political lobbying activities.

    To my mind, it’s clear that the leadership of the bar wants to continue being politically active and to continue to promote the impression that the bar is unified on a particular issue. But, they also know that they would lose their ability to present the appearance of a unified front if they ever gave the members of the state bar the chance to opt out. This is highly disingenuous.

    This is not a simple GOP v. Democratic issue, or a “big guy” v. “little guy” issue. Most lawyers represent organizations ranging from large corporations to individuals. Many lawyers who regularly represent large corporations are Democrats, and many lawyers who primarily represent individuals are Republicans. Many lawyers are independents. This bill goes to the core issue of forcing one to associate with a political organization that one may or may not agree with.

    It is unfortunate that this bill was introduced in this context because it seems to be causing political reactions that have little to do with the merits of the bill. If the bar had lobbied for a so-called conservative position, and a Democrat had then introduced this bill, I would still support it 100%

  6. Bob says:

    “Although no one has the exact numbers, it is probably safe to say that few attorneys support this initiative.”

    I am curious what facts you are aware of to support this assertion? This may come as a surprise, but mandatory bar membership is not especially popular among attorneys.

    For example, The State Bar of Wisconsin conducted a survey of it’s members in 2008. 57% indicated they would vote for a voluntary bar association if they were given a chance to do so. 58% indicated in a second survey in 2009 that they would support a voluntary bar.

    It certainly would be interesting to see what the results of such a survey would be in Michigan. But, I highly doubt that the emperor would want to risk revealing that he is not wearing any clothes.

    It would be refreshing to see a more democratic process in place for determining membership in the state bar. Or, better yet, just let individuals have the freedom to decide for themselves. What is more democratic than freedom to associate or freedom to choose not to associate?

    I respectfully assert my right to dissent from being forced to associate with any political organization, be it left wing, right wing, you name it. (If you doubt that the Michigan bar is acting as a political organization, ask yourself why a politician would retaliate against the bar?)

  7. Jeff says:

    Also a member of the MI Bar, I am in full agreement with Bob.

    Please don’t parrot the Bar leadership and pretend to speak on behalf of the 43000 attorneys of Michigan forced by law to join the organization. Many of us, sick of our already meager earnings being coerced from us to fund lobbying attempts we oppose, support this measure.

    And, speaking as a struggling attorney who provides low cost / pro-bono services to indigent clients on a daily basis, Janis’ sarcastic (one hopes!) comment regarding permanent jobs with the Koch brothers seems quite mired in delusion; but then, it’s a typical rhetorical tactic from a Soros-funded operative; right?

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