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.