Supreme Court to Consider Union Political Funds Collection

Published September 1, 2008

Taxpayers across the nation will soon know whether states can prohibit local school boards from collecting political contributions for teacher unions, as the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing such matters in a case from Idaho.

In 2003, the Idaho Legislature passed the Voluntary Contributions Act, which banned the collection of political contributions through government payroll systems throughout the state. Nothing in the law prohibits union members from contributing to candidates by choice, and nothing in it prohibits unions from engaging in politics.

Policy experts view the law favorably. Noted Ben DeGrow, an education analyst with the Independence Institute, “Governments should be focused on performing vital services for taxpayers, not on acting as a bill collector for private groups–especially groups that are lobbying officials and funding political candidates.”

But after the Idaho Legislature adopted the law, several unions sued, claiming the measure violated their free speech rights.

Unions Claim Speech Impeded

In November 2005, a federal district court ruled for the unions, saying the payroll ban unconstitutionally impeded union speech. The judge said a state could ban the practice for its own employees but could not mandate labor policies at the local level.

That decision rendered the law unconstitutional when applied to municipal governments, school districts, and other local government bodies.

The judge said payroll deductions are a preferred fundraising method because without automatic deductions employees could be subjected to union strong-arming. Unions would have to “engage in face-to-face solicitation, a technique fraught with the potential for coercion.”

State Appealed, Lost

The State of Idaho appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in October 2007 affirmed the lower court decision.

“The unique nature of the state’s intervention therefore strongly suggests that the state’s purpose here is exactly that against which the First Amendment protects–the denial of payroll deductions for the purpose of stifling political speech,” concluded the Ninth Circuit.

The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The unions claim the law burdens their free speech rights by forcing them to divert money toward fundraising and administration. The burden of collecting money, they say, reduces the funds available for political contributions.

Burden Shared By All

Legal analysts familiar with First Amendment issues disagree with the unions’ claim.

“The unions’ so-called ‘burden’ of political fundraising is shared by all political entities and candidates,” said Jonathan Bechtle, legal counsel for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. “Nothing in the First Amendment forces local governments to act as a union’s political fundraiser.”

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, joined by the Independence Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in support of the Idaho law.

“We argued that the Ninth Circuit’s decision broke from well-established case law,” Bechtle said. He noted unions are the beneficiaries of significant privileges, but there is no constitutional obligation requiring a state to bargain with a union. Accordingly, states have adopted numerous restrictions on unions’ monopoly bargaining status.

Impedes States’ Authority

Bechtle noted the unintended consequences of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. “The Ninth Circuit used the First Amendment to erect a wall between the state and local government bodies. If upheld, the ruling could undermine a state’s ability to adopt many reasonable labor-management laws,” he said.

Numerous courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have held unions have no constitutional right to government payroll deductions, as states owe unions no special obligation to collect their income.

The Idaho case, Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association, will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall.

Michael Reitz ([email protected]) is general counsel of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Olympia, Washington.