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Idaho case on union dues cited as precedent

A 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case stemming from an Idaho law regarding teacher union dues has set a precedent for cases outside the state. File photo by Glenn Landberg.

A 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision stemming from an Idaho law has set a union dues precedent across the country, and its influence was recently felt in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s Wake County Superior Court struck down a state law that blocked members of a teacher association from paying their dues through voluntary payroll deductions.

Judge Paul G. Gessner ruled in December that the law was unconstitutional because it discriminated against members of the North Carolina Association of Educators by violating their free speech right to express support for their organization. The association, which represents about a third of all public school teachers in the state, said the law would have crippled it financially.

While unions prevailed in North Carolina, the Supreme Court actually struck down union arguments in the precedent-setting Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association.

Unions had protested a 2003 Idaho legislative change to the state’s Right to Work law that prevented teacher union members from having dues dedicated to political activities automatically deducted from their paychecks.

The Supreme Court held that the law was constitutional because the state and local governments were not required to “subsidize” political activities. In this case that subsidy took the form of added payroll deductions that would cost the state money to organize. In the split decision, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the state has a right to “decline to promote” free speech as long as the state is not actively suppressing free speech.

Gessner is the first judge in North Carolina to determine the constitutionality of restrictions on voluntary dues deductions, said an attorney for the association, Drew Erteschik of Poyner Spruill in Raleigh.

“These were definitely state constitutional issues of first impression, and I think (the decision) clarifies the contours of the free speech clause under the state constitution,” he added. “This is a rapidly developing area of the law in the federal courts.”

Both the NCAE and the state cited the Ysursa decision, with the latter pointing out in its motion to dismiss that the Supreme Court found that states are “not required to assist anyone in ‘funding the expression of particular ideas, including political ones.’”

However, the Idaho law did not apply to union membership dues, only to deductions for political action committees, and the Supreme Court found that the statute was evenhanded. That wasn’t the case with North Carolina’s law, according to Erteschik and law partner Robert Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice.

In Idaho, most school districts, including the Boise district, still have an automatic payroll deduction for union dues, although officials from the Idaho Education Association – the state teachers’ union – say they can’t confirm that all use the process.

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