Bill allowing attorneys to opt out of Kentucky Bar Association advances from House committee, despite judiciary objections

by McKenna Horsley, Kentucky Lantern
February 22, 2023

FRANKFORT — Over the objections of Chief Justice ​​​​​​​Laurance B. VanMeter, the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved a bill limiting mandatory dues charged lawyers to support the Kentucky Bar Association.

Rep. Steven Doan, R-Erlanger, the sponsor, said licensed attorneys would no longer be forced “to be associated with or pay dues to a trade association” and could choose how to spend their money if the bill becomes law.

“When the Kentucky Bar Association engages in political speech, they speak for all attorneys and it is our constitutional right — it is our First Amendment right — to choose whether or not we affirmatively support that speech by joining the bar association or that we do not by not joining,” Doan said. 

Doan said he appreciates services that KBA provides to members through dues and added the bill does not restrict those services. 

The KBA is an agency of the Kentucky Supreme Court. The court has delegated to the association responsibilities for regulating the practice of law, including lawyer discipline and continuing education. 

Van Meter cited a 1980 Supreme Court decision that found the state Constitution’s judicial reform amendment, approved by voters  in 1975, made it “unmistakably clear” that the judicial branch of state government has “exclusive authority to manage its own affairs.” 

“I would ask this committee to not advance the bill at this time, given the severe constitutional questions surrounding it,”  Van Meter said before the committee voted 16-5 to send House Bill 225 to the full House.

The bill has 18 Republican co-sponsors. 

Rep. Stephanie Dietz, R-Edgewood, asked Doan to give examples of political speech. He referenced the association’s speaking invitation to Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who had an affair with President Bill Clinton whose denial of it led to his 1998 impeachment. The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer reported her 2022 speech to the association’s annual convention was not open to the media but was titled “The Price of Shame” and discussed online bullying, harassment and public shaming in the digital age. 

Doan said Lewinsky spoke on politics and that he has seen political articles in the association’s magazine. 

Dietz asked if more conservative speakers had been invited. Doan said the association may have done that but “I think the members of the bar association should have the opportunity to determine whether they want to be part of an organization that’s going to engage in political speech or not.”

Also speaking against the bill was Todd McMurty, a Kentucky Bar Association Board of Governors member and an attorney in Northern Kentucky. McMurtry said the KBA strives to ensure the quality of attorneys in the commonwealth and takes steps to remain apolitical.

McMurtry pointed out that he had represented another target of public shaming, Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann, in his defamation lawsuits against media companies over their portrayal of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial in 2019.

According to the materials presented by VanMeter and McMurtry, 32 states have mandatory or integrated bars like Kentucky, including border states West Virginia, Virginia and Missouri.

Eighteen states do not have a mandatory bar or licensing through a Supreme Court or executive branch, including border states Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee. 

Almost 20,000 active and inactive Kentucky licensed attorneys are served by the association. 

Under the committee substitute approved Wednesday lawyers still could be required to pay fees to support costs associated with admission to the bar and discipline of attorneys.

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Photo:  Rep. Steven Doan, R-Erlanger, left, confers with Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter before presenting House Bill 225, an act related to members of the bar, in the House Judiciary Committee. (Photo by LRC Public Information)