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State News

August 21, 2013

AEA’s future influence could hinge on lawsuit

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A federal appeals court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could determine the future political influence of the state teachers’ lobbying organization.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether four Republicans — Gov. Robert Bentley, former Gov. Bob Riley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh — must turn over emails and other materials to the Alabama Education Association. AEA is seeking the documents in its lawsuit challenging a 2010 law designed to stop education employees from having AEA dues and political contributions deducted from their paychecks.

AEA wants the documents to bolster its claim that the law constitutes political retaliation and is designed to destroy the organization. AEA maintains the new Republican-controlled Legislature elected in November 2010 passed the law at Riley’s request to retaliate against AEA for getting involved in the Republican primary for governor in 2010. That year, the AEA helped defeat Bradley Byrne, who was backed by Riley. AEA’s work helped propel Bentley to the governor’s office, which 11th Circuit Judge Ed Carnes noted during the arguments Wednesday.

AEA attorney Sam Heldman said the law was “an attempt to make it more difficult to engage in political speech.” He added that the motives of legislators — contained in emails and other documents — are important to the case.

The state disagreed.

“This is not the way to establish legislative motive,” said Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman, who represents the legislators and Riley.

Neiman and Bentley’s attorney, Bert Jordan, argued that the officials have immunity from having their documents subpoenaed. Neiman said allowing the subpoenas have a major impact on government by making public officials less willing to discuss matters with their colleagues.

In court papers, attorneys for the officials say the law was passed to bring payroll deductions in line with another state law that prohibits the use of state equipment or state employee time for political purposes.

AEA’s challenge of the law is pending before U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith in Huntsville. The four Republicans had asked him to block AEA’s subpoenas for the documents, but he refused. That prompted their appeal to the 11th Circuit. The three- judge panel from the 11th Circuit did not indicate when it would rule, but attorneys on both sides said it could take a few months. The case before Smith is on hold until then.

In Smith’s Jan. 3 ruling on the subpoenas, he noted that the courts have wrangled with the document issue since Aaron Burr’s treason case, when he sought a letter sent that a general sent to President Thomas Jefferson.

The law on dues deductions is not being enforced while the case is pending, and government agencies are continuing to deduct AEA contributions from education employees’ paychecks. AEA’s political action committee is one of the state’s largest sources of campaign contributions for Alabama candidates. The PAC has nearly $4.5 million on hand. In contrast, the PAC of the Business Council of Alabama currently has $1.6 million, according to reports both organizations filed recently with the secretary of state.

 

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