The D.C. Court of Appeals upheld yesterday a referendum by more than 11,000 Washington lawyers that prohibits the D.C. Bar from spending lawyers' dues on a wide range of public service activities.
As of July 1, the bar -- to which all practicing lawyers in Washington must belong -- must cease using membership dues to fund such activities as lawyer referral services for the poor, continuing legal education projects and bar publications.
The ruling, which drew mixed reaction from members of the legal community, will restrict the use of dues to activites directly related to monitoring lawyers in the city, such as registration and disciplinary action. However, bar leaders said yesterday that some public service activites may be continued through voluntary contributions.
There has been extended debate within the Washington legal community about whether lawyers have a responsibility to serve the community at large. Last December, the lawyers voted 6,721 to 5,189 in support of the measure, which effectively restricts the bar's role in the public service programs.
However the court's ruling was not unanimous. In a dissent, Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr. said it was "shameful" that the D.C. Bar was being "permitted to shirk its responsibility" to fulfill lawyers' "ethical obligations . . . merely because a majority of those voting in a referendum chose this path."
"I don't think the world will come to an end," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Dodell, an outspoken proponent of the referendum and "unofficial spokesman" for the majority of the city's lawyers who sought to limit the use of bar dues. "The difference is that the community will be served without . . . this compulsory organization with enormous power that members find oppressive."
The mandatory dues assessment -- currently $65 a year -- funds about $2 million of the bar's $2.4 million budget, according to figures cited in the court opinion. Of that, about $1.1 million represents expenditures for programs which may no longer be paid for with the dues.
Bar president Stephen J. Pollack said that the bar would comply with the order and a "careful assessment of priorities and sources of funding" would be made to determine what activities could be continued without use of the dues to fund them.
One program that may be in particular danger, according to a bar official, is the lawyer referral service, which gets 20,000 calls a year and refers more than half to lawyers and legal service organizations. About 90 percent of the cost of the referral service is paid for by the dues.
"I'm disappointed, I think the court was wrong," said John W. Douglas, a lawyer with the firm of Covington and Burling. Douglas, who opposed the referendum, said he did not see how the $1.1 million shortfall would be made up.
The ruling was in the form of a one-page order, followed by 42 pages of opinions. It came after hours of public testimony and letters from leading lawyers and judges, many of whom urged the court to preserve the bar's public service role.
The ruling became effective after five judges -- Newman, Stanley S. Harris, Catherine B. Kelly, John W. Kern III and Frank Q. Nebeker -- said they would lift a previous court order temporarily permitting the bar to fund the activities.