• Supreme Court Allows Ban on Payroll Deductions for Public Employee Unions' Political Action Committees in Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association
  • March 23, 2009 | Author: Daniel J. Guttman
  • Law Firms: Baker & Hostetler LLP - Columbus Office ; Baker & Hostetler LLP - Cleveland Office
  • On February 24, 2009, the United States Supreme Court decided, in a 6-3 decision, to uphold Idaho’s ban on public employee political payroll deductions. The Idaho ban applies to unionized employees of local governmental agencies. The Court held that Idaho’s ban on public employee political payroll deductions does not infringe on a union’s First Amendment rights.

    Idaho’s Right to Work Act permits public employees to authorize payroll deductions for union dues, but prohibits deductions for a union’s political activities. The Supreme Court explained that while Idaho’s public employee unions are free to engage in speech as they see fit, payroll deductions contributed to a union’s political action committee by local government employees may be barred, as such a deduction limitation does not infringe on the union’s First Amendment rights. Chief Justice Roberts delivered the Court’s opinion, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito jointed the opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred in the judgment, but authored her own opinion. Justice Stephen Breyer concurred in part and dissented in part, while Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter filed separate dissenting opinions.

    The Supreme Court reasoned that although publicly administered payroll deductions for political purposes can enhance a union’s exercise of First Amendment rights, Idaho is under no obligation to aid the unions in their political activities through the administration of a payroll system. Because the Supreme Court found that Idaho had not infringed the unions’ First Amendment rights, they were only required to demonstrate a rational basis to justify their ban on political payroll deductions. Idaho argued that the ban on payroll deductions was not aimed at the suppression of ideas, but is instead justified by the State’s interest in avoiding the reality or appearance of government favoritism or entanglement with partisan politics. The Supreme Court found that “Idaho’s decision to allow payroll deductions for some purposes but not for political activities is plainly reasonable.” The Court found that the ban, rather than suppressing union speech, simply declined to assist that speech through public employer checkoffs for political activities.

    The Ysursa decision is undoubtedly a victory for the State of Idaho, but it may also serve as a guide for other states, their political subdivisions, municipalities and local government agencies contemplating laws that may potentially be challenged as violating the First Amendment because they prohibit the collection of union monies when intended for political purposes. Notably, although future challenges to such regulations may not be successful after the Supreme Court’s decision in Ysursa, unions are not without alternatives or creativity—in anticipation of  Ysursa, several unions report moving towards electronic fund transfers, rather than payroll deductions, as a method of collecting funds for political activities.