The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to review an Idaho state law that bars school districts and other local government agencies from making deductions from union members’ paychecks for the unions’ political activities.
The court accepted the state’s appeal in Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association (Case No. 07-869), in which the state is defending the federal constitutionality of its Voluntary Contributions Act. The law, passed in 2003, was backed in Idaho and in other states by “right to work” forces.
The law was challenged by the Idaho Education Association, its Pocatello local affiliate, and other public-employee unions in the state. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled unanimously in October 2007 that the provision as applied to local government employers violates the First Amendment free-speech rights of the unions.
“This restriction on voluntary political contributions burdens political speech,” the 9th Circuit court said. “The law does not prohibit [the unions] from participating in political activities, but it hampers their ability to do so by making the collection of funds for that purpose more difficult.”
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Idaho said the 9th Circuit court “has made a striking and unprecedented incursion into the authority of state legislatures to control the employment practices of political subdivisions.”
The Idaho Education Association and the other public-employee unions urged the court not to review the case, noting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, had recently made a similar ruling in striking down Utah’s version of the Voluntary Contributions Act, and thus no conflict existed among the federal courts of appeals on the issue. (“Latest Round in Utah Battle Goes to Unions,” Jan. 23, 2008.)
But in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of Idaho’s appeal, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and other groups said the 9th and 10th Circuit rulings conflicted with a 1998 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, that upheld an Ohio law that is similar to the Voluntary Contributions Act.
The Supreme Court has shown an interest in the area of teacher unions’ activities tied to government authority. Last year, the court upheld a Washington state law that requires unions to get the consent of nonmembers to use their representation fees on political activities. (“High Court Upholds Wash. State Law on Union Fees,” June 20, 2007.)
The justices will hear arguments in the Idaho case sometime during their next term, which begins in October.