Court permits stopping union political deductions

February 24, 2009 8:24:44 AM PST
The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld an Idaho law that bans cities, counties and school districts from allowing payroll deductions for a union's political activities, a blow to labor's political fundraising in that state.

Five labor unions and the Idaho state AFL-CIO had successfully challenged part of the law in the lower federal courts, saying the state's decision in 2003 to force local governments to eliminate a payroll deduction for political activities violated the First Amendment.

But "Idaho's law does not restrict political speech, but rather declines to promote that speech by allowing public employee checkoff for political activities," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the majority opinion.

Before 2003, Idaho employers could authorize both a payroll deduction for union dues and one for union political activities through a political action committee. But the state legislature in 2003 passed the Voluntary Contributions Act, which prohibits payroll deductions for political activities.

The unions did not appeal the elimination of the payroll deduction for state-level employees, and "we are aware of no case suggesting that a different analysis applies under the First Amendment depending on the level of government affected," said Roberts, who was joined in his opinion by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito.

"The ban on political payroll deductions futhers Idaho's interest in separating the operations of government from partisan politics," the chief justice said. "That interest extends to all public employers at whatever level of government."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a separate opinion, agreed "that, in the context here, the Constitution compels no distinction between state and local governmental entities."

A federal judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco concluded that local units of government and school districts could choose to stop making the payroll deductions, but that the state could not force them to do so.

"Payroll deduction should not be a constitutionally protected right," said Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, which filed court papers in the case. "We feel it's bad public policy to have government bodies essentially be bagmen for union political monies."

Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter dissented, saying the law was clearly aimed at stopping the political speech of unions.

The new language was placed inside a law "that deals with unions, the statute amended regulates unions, and all this legislation is placed in the state's labor law certification," Souter said. "Union speech and nothing else, seems to have been on the legislative mind."

The case is Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association, 07-869.

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