The PJ Tatler

When is a Possible Legal Violation by Lawyers Worthy of News Coverage?

gavelIn the upcoming election, North Dakota has a referendum on shared parenting on its ballot. The group running the opposition to shared parenting is mostly made up of ND family law lawyers. That is fine as lawyers may stand opposed to changes in the law. But these lawyers aren’t simply opposing the referendum, they are using the funds and resources of the State Bar Association of North Dakota Bar (SBAND) to run their opposition campaign.

The North Dakota Bar Association is a mandatory membership bar with mandatory dues. Under United States Supreme Court rulings mandatory membership organizations with mandatory dues cannot use those dues for political purposes without disclosure and opt-in requirements. (Our right to free speech includes not being compelled to donate money to causes we do not support.) In this case, the North Dakota bar would have had to notify its members about the campaign and only use the dues of the attorneys who opted-in to supporting the campaign.
That didn’t happen in North Dakota. There has been no notice or opt-in question presented to the members. And there is little question that Keeping Kids First, the name the referendum opposing attorneys gave to their campaign, has been using the resources of SBAND. Their financial statements show that they are funding the opposition, exclusively it seems, out of the ND bar budget. North Dakota Shared Parenting 4 Kids has raised less than $7,000 while SBAND has made 3 “donations” totaling $70,000. At first they were even so bold as to have email addresses domained at the SBAND website. They admit all of this, claiming that the referendum is not a political issue but a social one. (Note at the link, the ND code reads otherwise.)
The groups in support of the shared parenting referendum have tried, in vain, to notify the proper authorities about these documented violations. The ND Attorney General’s office referred the complaint first to the bar association, the party allowing the use of dues, and then to the county attorneys. Of 53 counties, only two county attorneys replied, one of which basically dismissed the complaints by stating, “It is hard for me to believe that SBAND didn’t research the appropriateness of their involvement prior to commiting funds – but if the activities of the association are improper, it will come to light and be handled as required by the law.”
Lawyer malfeasance may be hard to believe (stop snickering, dear reader) but how exactly will improper actions come to light if everyone in a position of authority or responsibility keeps assuming someone else will shine the light?  Despite the letters to State and SBAND authorities—with copies to the state Supreme Court and the Judiciary Committee—a press release, and three attorneys public posts of concern, no authorities have acted, and the North Dakota press seems uninterested in covering the story.
A referendum on a foundation of family law is favored in the polls, funded by individual small donations, and opposed almost exclusively by divorce lawyers who are appropriating state bar money to fund their opposition—this isn’t newsworthy?  Usually the press likes everyday citizens uniting against the corporate machine stories. Granted the big-bad here isn’t a corporate machine but a collection of lawyers. But since when do lawyers inspire less ire than corporations?
This individual referendum will soon be resolved at the ballot box, but the problems of powerful associations abusing their position and wealth to get their way and the press that enables them, they will remain.