Monday, January 21, 2013
Reversing a federal district judge's holding that portions of Wisconsin's controversial Act 10 regarding public unions, the Seventh Circuit split panel's opinion in Wisconsin Education Association Council v. Walker upheld the constitutionality of the act.
Recall that the federal district judge had held that Act 10's requirement of annual recertification of general employees unions violated equal protection guarantees and Act 10's prohibition of dues withholding for general employees violated the first amendment.
The Seventh Circuit majority emphasized that the Act 10's "speaker-based distinctions are permissible when the state subsidizes speech. Nothing in the Constitution requires the government to subsidize all speech equally."
Moreover, the Seventh Circuit majority found that Act 10 was viewpoint neutral, even as it admitted that
the Unions do offer some evidence of viewpoint discrimination in the words of then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald suggesting Act 10, by limiting unions’ fundraising capacity, would make it more difficult for President Obama to carry Wisconsin in the 2012 presidential election. While Senator Fitzgerald’s statement may not reflect the highest of intentions, his sentiments do not invalidate an otherwise constitutional, viewpoint neutral law.
On the Equal Protection claim, the panel majority applied rational basis review, in which "the law is presumed constitutional, and we impose a weighty burden on the Unions—they must “negative every . . . basis which might support” the law because we will uphold it “if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts” supporting the classification." The panel rejected the argument that heightened rational basis attributable to animus should apply: "unfortunate as it may be, political favoritism is a frequent aspect of legislative action."
Judge David Hamilton dissented from the majority's decision upholding Wisconsin’s selective prohibition on payroll deductions for dues for some public employee unions but not others on the basis of the First Amendment. In his lengthy dissent, Judge Hamilton differs on the central point of viewpoint neutrality, noting that while "on its face, Wisconsin’s Act 10 seems viewpoint-neutral: public safety unions can have dues withheld from paychecks, while other public employee unions cannot." But he quickly observes: "Facial neutrality, however, is not the end of the matter."
Hamilton agreed with the district judge and credited the unions' arguments that Act 10 was a
pretext for viewpoint (here, political) discrimination. The first is the close correlation between various unions’ political endorsements in the 2010 Wisconsin governor’s race and their ability to continue payroll deductions. The second is the flimsiness of the State’s proffered rationales for drawing the line as it did between public safety and general employees and for barring payroll deductions of union dues for all but public safety employees. The third is the overtly partisan political explanation for the Act that was offered in the legislative debate.
While there are some minor disagreements on doctrine between the majority and dissenting opinions, for the most part they are in accord. Where they differ is in their essential understanding of whether the facts satisfy the requirement of viewpoint neutrality. Dissenting Judge Hamilton seems to have the better opinion in this regard; the majority opinion too often seems poised to conclude their is viewpoint discrimination and then retreats without explanation.
Perhaps the Seventh Circuit will proceed with en banc review.