A federal appeals court has reinstated an Alabama law that bars public-employee salary deductions for political action committees or the parts of union dues that go to political activity.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, potentially is a significant defeat for teachers' unions. The Alabama Education Association and its PAC, known as A-VOTE, filed the lawsuit challenging the 2010 statute.
A federal district court had issued a preliminary injunction barring the law from taking effect, ruling that one phrase in the law was constitutionally overbroad and that the bar on deductions for "political activity" was unconstitutionally vague and could subject some people to criminal penalties when they couldn't be sure what was permitted.
But in its Feb. 5 decision in Alabama Education Association v. State Superintendent of Education, the 11th Circuit court panel unanimously lifted the injunction. The appeals court had certified some questions to the Alabama Supreme Court and was evidently satisfied that the Alabama high court's interpretation mitigated any of the statute's potential First Amendment problems. (The Alabama Supreme Court's October opinion is appended to the 11th Circuit's ruling, linked above.)
The appeals court noted that in 2009, in Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Idaho measure barring political payroll deductions, saying that "nothing in the First Amendment prevents a state from determining that its political subdivisions may not provide payroll deductions for political activities."
The 11th Circuit court said it needed the Alabama high court's help to determine that the state law was properly conceived. On the constitutional overbreadth concern, the Alabama Supreme Court made clear in its answer that the statute does not prohibit private contributions to political action committees, or contributions that are not facilitated by the government.
This, the 11th Circuit court said, "compels the conclusions that the act only declines to promote speech, rather than abridging it, and that the act does not implicate any constitutionally protected conduct, much less a substantial amount."
As to whether the Alabama law's reference to "political activity" was overly vague, the state high court said the law did cover more than just "electioneering" activities. The 11th Circuit court said that did not help the teachers' union and its PAC, because "where an enactment clearly covers some conduct in which a plaintiff engages, that plaintiff cannot complain of the vagueness of the law."
"Some of AEA and A-VOTE's conduct indisputably falls within the act's definition of political activity, and therefore the challengers cannot bring a facial challenge arguing the term is vague based on other applications," the 11th Circuit court said.
The appeals court said the statute was still subject to "as applied" challenges, as opposed to the "facial" challenge mounted by the AEA.
But for now, the Alabama statute is back in business.