After an unusually spirited election campaign, the 54,000-member D.C. Bar announced yesterday it has chosen James Robertson to take over as president in 1991.

Robertson, a partner at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, of Washington, won the election with 58 percent of 10,714 mail votes cast by active members between early May and June 8. Robertson, 52, will spend a year as president-elect before becoming president in July 1991.

The normally sedate bar election turned lively this spring as David Epstein, a self-styled long-shot candidate, argued during the election campaign that the bar should show fiscal restraint and put all dues increases to a membership referendum.

Epstein, 54, a partner in the D.C. office of Thompson, Hine & Flory, of Cleveland, also changed bar politics by trying a bit of advertising -- a small ad in the Washington Jewish Week and another in the Bar Report, the organization's newsletter.

During the campaign, Robertson had argued that a referendum was inappropriate for resolving questions about dues.

"It does not provide a forum of reasoned, careful discussion of issues," he said yesterday. "It's a way for two sides to polarize issues and flail away at each other."

To Robertson and others who argued that referendums "are divisive," Epstein countered, "Democracy is divisive, but we think it's a good thing."

The D.C. Bar is a mandatory bar, and all lawyers practicing in the District must pay its dues, now $75 a year for active members.

The battle over dues began last December when the Bar's Board of Governors -- Robertson among them -- sought to raise the ceiling on dues to $85 a year. The board also sought automatic increases for the next 10 years tied to the consumer price index. The bar must seek approval from the D.C. Court of Appeals in such matters.

A faction of the bar -- with whom Epstein has sided -- opposed the increases and asked the court to require a referendum for any dues increase.

In April, the court rejected the referendum plan and the proposal for the increases to be tied to the consumer price index. Instead, it proposed that the $85 ceiling be open to public comment for 60 days, which ended June 10, and that future increases be handled in the same way. Now the bar is awaiting a final ruling.

Robertson said the court -- and the membership by its vote in the president's race -- determined that the dues question should be handled by public comment and court ruling, rather than referendum.

Daryl W. Jackson, an assistant U.S. attorney now on leave as a visiting professor at George Washington University's National Law Center, was elected secretary. Alan I. Herman, who heads a pro bono project at the American Corporate Counsel Institute, was elected treasurer.