The Supreme Court decision in United Transportation Union v. State Bar of Michigan, 401 U.S. 576 (1971), reversed an injunction prohibiting a union from engaging in group legal activity, finding that the injunction denied the union workers and members their freedom of association and speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment.
The Michigan State Bar had brought suit against the United Transportation Union to prevent it from, among other things, referring its members to certain attorneys, passing along information about their injuries, and capping attorney’s fees to 25 percent of the amount they recovered. A lower state court found against the union, and the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed.
Supreme Court upholds union’s ability to give legal advice, services to members
Justice Hugo L. Black’s opinion for five members of the Court reasoned that the law was overly vague in prohibiting the union from “giving or furnishing legal advice to its members or their families” and that other prohibitions were counter to rights that the Court had recognized in previous cases, including Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Virginia State Bar, United Mine Workers of America, District 12 v. Illinois State Bar Association and NAACP v. Button.
Black concluded that the First Amendment rights recognized in previous cases “would be a hollow promise if courts could deny associations of workers or others the means of enabling their members to meet the costs of legal representation.”
Harlan argues in dissent that states must be allowed to regulate attorneys
John Marshall Harlan II concurred in part and dissented in part. He would have upheld other parts of the injunction as an effective means of preventing “ambulance chasing.” He stressed the need to allow states to regulate attorneys and concluded that “all that is involved here is a combination of purchasers of services seeking to increase their market power.” In such circumstances, he thought that “the relationship to First Amendment interests seems to [him] remote at best.”
Justice Byron R.White filed a separate opinion (joined by Harry A. Blackmun) concurring that prohibiting the union from giving legal advice was overly broad and allowing that it could use agreements to limit attorney fees but dissenting from the decision to set the decree completely aside. Justice Potter Stewart did not participate in the decision.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.