By MICHAEL TARM
CHICAGO (AP) – A federal appeals court in Chicago heard arguments Monday on the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s law restricting collective bargaining by public employees – one of several related appeals working their way through the courts.
The hour-long hearing before a three-judge panel at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals focused on clauses that halt automatic withdrawal of union dues and require that unions hold elections annually to reconfirm their official status.
The Chicago hearing comes on the heels of a March 30 ruling by U.S. District Judge William Conley in the Western District of Wisconsin deeming both provisions illegal. He left the majority of the law untouched.
The 2011 law – a centerpiece of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda – set off pitched political battles in Wisconsin and shined a national spotlight on the state. It focused attention on the question of public-sector unions, whether and how to rein them in.
The case in the Chicago court is one of at least three pending in state or federal courts. On Sept. 14, a state court in Wisconsin threw out other major parts of the 2011 law – and attorneys for the state are also appealing that ruling.
The federal panel in Chicago on Monday did not signal when it might rule, though it typically takes at least several weeks – and sometimes much longer – for it to release opinions after oral arguments.
Much of the debate Monday zeroed in on the question of whether authors of the collective bargaining law crafted it in such a way as to give unions politically favorable to Republicans a pass on some restrictions and stuck it to pro-Democrat unions.
In his March ruling, Judge Conley found the provision forcing unions to hold elections each year violated the equal-protection clause of the constitution because unions that it classified as public-safety unions were exempt.
On Monday, union attorney Leon Dayan echoed Conley’s finding. He told the Chicago panel that what state sectors were or weren’t designated public-safety unions appeared based on their political inclinations and not of well-defined criteria.
“It is a political payback distinction – not a substantive policy distinction,” Daylan said about the criteria.
But an attorney representing the state of Wisconsin, Joseph Olson, said there was no proof that politics trumped legitimate financial and other policy concerns when lawmakers drew up the legislation.
“The court should be leery to ascribe political animus,” he said.