(CN) – Alabama’s lame-duck governor called a special session at which he rammed through an unconstitutional law, under the guise of “ethics reform,” which prohibits teachers from allowing automatic payroll deductions for union dues, and makes union members criminally liable if such dues or PAC contributions are used for “phone calling for any political purpose,” or “distributing political literature of any type,” the Alabama Education Association claims in Huntsville Federal Court.
The AEA and its political action committee, A-Vote, sued Alabama’s new governor, Robert Bentley, who also serves as president of the State Board of Education. Individual teachers joined as plaintiffs and named top state officials as co-defendants, including the state superintendent of education, the comptroller, the state finance director, two county district attorneys and three local school boards.
“Plaintiffs are challenging legislations rushed through an extraordinary special session of a newly elected legislature, at the behest of a governor with weeks left in his final term of office, for the purpose of harming and retaliation against an employee organization because of its constitutionally protected advocacy regarding issues and candidates,” the AEA says in its complaint. “The challenged legislation was enacted in the guise of ‘ethics reform’ but is designed to silence political opposition.”
Lame-duck Gov. Robert Riley called the special session in December. The Legislature – Alabama’s first Republican-controlled Legislature in more than a century – passed Act 2010-761 on Dec. 15 and Gov. Riley signed it into law on Dec. 20.
On June 28, 2010, Alabama Comptroller Thomas White announced that payroll deductions for political action committees would no longer be withheld from state employees’ paychecks, effective July 1 – even if the employees requested it.
The Republican-controlled Legislature, elected on Nov. 2, was not scheduled to meet until March – after Gov. Riley’s term ended – but Riley called them into special session “in order to address a package of ‘ethics reforms,'” according to the complaint.
One of the reforms was to prohibit payroll deductions for contributions to PACs. This was included in Act 2010-761 aka Senate Bill 2.
But the Act did much more than that. It states: “No person in the employment of the State of Alabama, a county, a city, a local school board, or any other governmental agency may arrange by salary deduction or otherwise for any payments to a political action committee or arrange by salary deduction or otherwise for any payments for dues of any person so employed to a membership organization which uses any portion of the dues for political activity.”
The Act defines political activity as “… (3) Engaging in or paying for any form of political communication, including communications which mention the name of a political candidate. (4) Engaging in or paying for any type of political advertising in any medium. (5) Phone calling for any political purpose. (6) Distributing political literature of any type. (7) Providing any type of in-kind help or support to or for a political candidate.”
Violations are criminally punishable under the Act, which states: “Any person who violates this section shall be guilty of the crime of trading in public office and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined or sentenced, or both, as provided by Section 13A-10-63.”
Trading in public office, a Class A misdemeanor, is punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $6,000.
The AEA says the law is unconstitutionally vague.
It also points out that “the political viewpoints and candidates that have been supported by AEA and A-Vote have frequently been ones that the Riley administration and other leading Republican political figures have opposed.”
And it points out that the state still administers payroll deductions for other purposes, including charitable contributions, insurance payments and credit union contributions, all of which are “membership organizations … which engage in activities that are ‘political’ as that term is used in the Act.”
The AEA wants the law enjoined as unconstitutional, and costs. Their lead counsel is J. Cecil Gardner of Mobile.