WASHINGTON — Idaho's teacher and firefighter unions on Monday confronted a divided Supreme Court in a case closely watched by the nation's 22 right-to-work states.
The court's most steadfastly conservative justices suggested that Idaho was within its rights to block local governments from making payroll deductions that fund political activities. These justices insisted that this restriction did not infringe on the unions' free-speech rights.
"It doesn't seem to me particularly discriminatory to say that in making those deductions, no part of it will be given for political activities," Justice Antonin Scalia stated. "I mean, you're only addressing a narrow class."
But other justices appeared to disagree Monday, suggesting that Idaho's rule was biased against the unions' distinctive point of view.
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"I mean, you say yes . . . it's viewpoint neutral," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said of Idaho's law. "But it seems that what is banned by the statute is union speech."
Pointedly, Justice John Paul Stevens added that Idaho still lets local governments make deductions for a charity like the United Way while denying them for unions. Stevens' observation underscored the argument that Idaho was interfering with unions' protected speech.
An Idaho victory in the case called Ysura v. Pocatello Education Association would make it harder for unions to finance political action committees. Instead of money being automatically deducted from paychecks, workers would have to make the affirmative decision to contribute.
This could cut into the $52 million in federal campaign contributions made by labor union PACs over the past two years, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
An Idaho victory also could further embolden rules already enacted in right-to-work states including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. Right-to-work states prohibit employment contracts that require the payment of union dues.
Workers can still voluntarily agree to pay the dues. In 2003, though, the Idaho legislature passed a law that, among other provisions, prohibited local governments from making deductions for union political action.
"In this instance, the legislature concluded that it wanted all public employers, among others, to not allow access to their payroll systems," Idaho Deputy Attorney General Clay R. Smith said during hour-long oral arguments Monday.
Five unions representing firefighters and teachers, including the Pocatello Education Association, challenged the 2003 provision. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down as violating the First Amendment, reasoning, in part, that the Idaho state government does not customarily play a role in managing local government payrolls.
"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," the 9th Circuit ruled.
The case could turn on some technical distinctions, including the precise nature of the relationship between state and local governments. Idaho, for its part, agrees that it could not require private employers to stop the deductions. The unions agree that the state can prohibit payroll deductions among state employees, but not local governments.
"There is a sharp distinction in this case between the state's treatment of its own employees and the state treatment of local governments," union attorney Jeremiah Collins told the court, adding that the denial of local government deductions is "blocking speech" that would otherwise take place.