(CN) - A district court abused its discretion in refusing to quash an Alabama education union's subpoenas of four state lawmakers, including the current governor, the 11th Circuit ruled.
The decision stemmed from a 2011 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Alabama law (Act 761), which prohibited state or local government employees from arranging by payroll deductions payable to "an organization that uses any portion of those contributions for political activity."
The Alabama Education Association, which represents public-school teachers in the state, and its political action committee, A-Vote, sued Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, along with other state officials, in the Birmingham Federal Court to contest the law.
According to Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes, writing for the three-judge panel, the 11th Circuit had previously ruled, in a separate appeal of the case, that "the prohibition alone" did not violate the First Amendment.
The latest ruling, however, concerned a separate claim by the AEA that the Act violated the organization's First Amendment rights "because the subjective motivations of the lawmakers in passing the Act was to retaliate against AEA for its political speech on education policy."
In its Oct. 14 ruling, the panel held that the lawmakers' motions to quash the subpoenas should not have been denied and the related writs of mandamus should be dismissed as moot.
The subpoenas in question, which went to Bentley, former Gov. Bob Riley, state House Speaker Mike Hubbard, Senate Pro Tempore Del Marsh and others, sought information related to the passage of the law.
Three of those subpoenaed (Riley, Hubbard and Marsh) were not defendants in the lawsuit, and they "promptly filed motions to quash the subpoenas." Bentley, who was eventually dismissed as a party to the suit, also moved to quash, asserting "various governmental privileges, including his legislative privilege."
The district court denied their motions, citing their failure "to properly assert those privileges."
The four argued that "the only purpose of AEA's subpoenas was to uncover evidence of their motivations for passing Act 761 and that the legislative privilege shields them from such inquiries."
The 11th Circuit agreed, finding that the district court improperly relied upon a Third Circuit decision imposing a set of four requirements for asserting governmental privilege.
"[N]one of those four requirements provides a proper basis for denying the kind of legislative privilege claims raised in the circumstances that exist in this case," Carnes wrote. "Two of the requirements are contrary to this circuit's precedent, and the other two are inappropriate given the circumstances."
In its previous decision on the case, the 11th Circuit also ruled that the law was not "unconstitutionally overbroad or impermissibly vague."
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