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U.S. Supreme Court

Keller v. State Bar of California, 496 U.S. 1 (1990)

Keller v. State Bar of California

No. 88-1905

Argued Feb. 27, 1990

Decided June 4, 1990

496 U.S. 1


Respondent State Bar of California is an "integrated bar" -- i.e., an association of attorneys in which membership and dues are required as a condition of practicing law -- created under state law to regulate the State's legal profession. In fulfilling its broad statutory mission to "promote the improvement of the administration of justice," the Bar uses its membership dues for self-regulatory functions, such as formulating rules of professional conduct and disciplining members for misconduct. It also uses dues to lobby the legislature and other governmental agencies, file amicus curiae, briefs in pending cases, hold an annual delegates conference for the debate of current issues and the approval of resolutions, and engage in educational programs. Petitioners, State Bar members, brought suit in state court claiming that, through these latter activities, the Bar expends mandatory dues payments to advance political and ideological causes to which they do not subscribe, in violation of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association. They requested, inter alia, an injunction restraining the Bar from using mandatory dues or its name to advance political and ideological causes or beliefs. The court granted summary judgment to the Bar on the grounds that it is a governmental agency, and therefore permitted under the First Amendment to engage in the challenged activities. The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that, while the Bar's regulatory activities were similar to those of a government agency, its "administration-of-justice" functions were more akin to the activities of a labor union. Relying on the analysis of Abood v. Detroit Bd. of

Page 496 U. S. 2

Education, 431 U. S. 209 -- which prohibits the agency-shop dues of dissenting nonunion employees from being used to support political and ideological union causes that are unrelated to collective bargaining activities -- the court held that the Bar's activities could be financed from mandatory dues only if a particular action served a state interest important enough to overcome the interference with dissenters' First Amendment rights. The State Supreme Court reversed, reasoning that the Bar was a "government agency" that could use its dues for any purpose within the scope of its statutory authority, and that subjecting the Bar's activities to First Amendment scrutiny would place an "extraordinary burden" on its statutory mission. With the exception of certain election campaigning, the court found that all of the challenged activities fell within the Bar's statutory authority.


1. The State Bar's use of petitioners' compulsory dues to finance political and ideological activities with which petitioners disagree violates their First Amendment right of free speech when such expenditures are not necessarily or reasonably incurred for the purpose of regulating the legal profession or improving the quality of legal services. Pp. 496 U. S. 9-17.

(a) The State Supreme Court's determination that the State Bar is a "government agency" for the purposes of state law is not binding on this Court when such a determination is essential to the decision of a federal question. The State Bar is not a typical "government agency." The Bar's principal funding comes from dues levied on its members, rather than from appropriations made by the legislature; its membership is composed solely of lawyers admitted to practice in the State, and its services by way of governance of the profession are essentially advisory in nature, since the ultimate responsibility of such governance is reserved by state law to the State Supreme Court. By contrast, there is a substantial analogy between the relationship of the Bar and its members and that of unions and their members. Just as it is appropriate that employees who receive the benefit of union negotiation with their employer pay their fair share of the cost of that process by paying agency-shop dues, it is entirely appropriate that lawyers who derive benefit from the status of being admitted to practice before the courts should be called upon to pay a fair share of the cost of the professional involvement in this effort. The State Bar was created, not to participate in the general government of the State, but to provide specialized professional advice to those with the ultimate responsibility of governing the legal profession. These differences between the State Bar and traditional government agencies render unavailing respondent's argument that it is not subject to the same constitutional rule with respect to the use of compulsory dues as are labor unions. Pp. 496 U. S. 10-13.

Page 496 U. S. 3

(b) Abood cannot be distinguished on the ground that the compelled association in the context of labor unions serves only a private economic interest in collective bargaining, while the Bar serves more substantial public interests. In fact, the legislative recognition that the agency-shop arrangements serve vital national interests in preserving industrial peace indicates that they serve a substantial public interest as well. It is not possible to determine that the Bar's interests outweigh these other interests sufficiently to produce a different result here. P. 496 U. S. 13.

(c) The guiding standard for determining permissible Bar expenditures relating to political or ideological activities is whether the challenged expenditures are necessarily or reasonably incurred for the purpose of regulating the legal profession or improving the quality of legal services. Precisely where the line falls between permissible and impermissible dues-financed activities will not always be easy to discern. But the extreme ends of the spectrum are clear: Compulsory dues may not be used to endorse or advance a gun control or nuclear weapons freeze initiative, but may be spent on activities connected with disciplining Bar members or proposing the profession's ethical codes. Pp. 496 U. S. 13-16.

(d) Since the Bar is already required to submit detailed budgets to the state legislature before obtaining approval to set annual dues, the State Supreme Court's assumption that complying with Abood would create an extraordinary burden for the Bar is unpersuasive. Any burden that might result is insufficient to justify contravention of a constitutional mandate, and unions have operated successfully within the boundaries of Abood procedures for over a decade. An integrated bar could meet its Abood obligation by adopting the sort of procedures described in Teacher v. Hudson, 475 U. S. 292. Questions whether alternate procedures would also satisfy the obligation should be left for consideration upon a more fully developed record. Pp. 496 U. S. 16-17.

2. Petitioners' freedom of association claim based on the State Bar's use of its name to advance political and ideological causes or beliefs will not be addressed by this Court in the first instance. P. 496 U. S. 17.

47 Cal.3d 1152, 255 Cal.Rptr. 542, 767 P.2d 1020 (1989), reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J.,delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 496 U. S. 4

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