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Appeals Court Rejects Teachers' Union Subpoenas of Alabama Officials

A federal appeals court has ruled against the Alabama Education Association in its effort to subpoena the records of four state officials to look for evidence that the officials were retaliating against the union when they helped pass a law that bars public-employee payroll deductions for political action committees. 

The decision Wednesday by a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, is the latest blow for the AEA and its political action committee in their efforts to fight Act 761, a statute passed in 2010 after Republicans took control of both houses of the Alabama legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

The law bars payroll deductions for public employees for "the payment of any contribution to an organization that uses any portion of those contributions for political activity." The 11th Circuit court in 2014 had rejected another part of the AEA's suit by holding that the bar on deductions for political activities was not unconstitutionally vague.

The latest decision stems from a part of the same suit of the state teachers' union that alleges two legislative leaders, one former governor, and the current governor had backed the law to retaliate against the AEA for its past opposition to education policy proposals by former Gov. Bob Riley and other Republicans.

Besides Riley, the targets of the union's subpoenas were current Gov. Robert J. Bentley, House of Representatives Speaker Mike Hubbard, and Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, also all Republicans. The subpoenas sought documents related to the development and passage of Act 761, any similar proposals to end payroll deductions for union dues, and any communications regarding the AEA.

In 2013, a federal district court rejected the four officials' motions to quash the subpoenas. The officials appealed to the 11th Circuit, and in its Oct. 14 decision in Alabama Education Association v. Bentley, the appeals court sided with the officials.

The appeals panel said all four were covered by "legislative privilege," which it said covers both the governors' and legislators' actions in the proposal, formulation, and passage of legislation.

"The legislative privilege protects against inquiry into acts that occur in the regular course of the legislative process and into the motivation for those acts," the appeals court said. "One of the privilege's principle purposes is to ensure that lawmakers are allowed to focus on their public duties."

"As a matter of law, the First Amendment does not support the kind of claim AEA makes here: a challenge to an otherwise constitutional statute based on the subjective motivations of the lawmakers who passed it," the court added. "And because the specific claim asserted does not legitimately further an important federal interest in this context, the legislative privileges must be honored and the subpoenas quashed."

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