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Judge: Alaska violated state employee contracts by trying to change union-dues rules

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: February 8
  • Published February 8

JUNEAU — The Dunleavy administration violated state law, the Alaska Constitution and its contract with the state’s largest public-employee union when it attempted to unilaterally change union-dues rules, an Anchorage Superior Court judge said in an order issued Monday.

Judge Gregory Miller said the Alaska State Employees Association is entitled to damages of more than $186,000 and a permanent injunction against the state. An attorney representing the union said she also intends to seek legal fees.

Miller, appointed by former Gov. Sean Parnell, issued an order that refutes a legal interpretation offered by former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson. Libertarian-minded attorneys are pursuing similar cases in other states and in federal court.

ASEA executive director Jake Metcalfe called the decision a “total victory.”

“We won on all counts and got damages. ... from a professional standpoint, can’t ask for more,” he said.

Clarkson had argued that a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision requires state employees to “opt in” to union membership by filling out a form annually to state that they intend to remain a union member. After Clarkson published his opinion, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an administrative order to change state policy.

The ASEA and other unions said the change violated employees’ contracts with the state and was an incorrect interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling.

At the time of the action, AFL-CIO director Vince Beltrami called it a union-busting attempt by the Dunleavy administration. The administration countered by saying it was only trying to follow the law.

The state and unions sued each other, and Miller issued preliminary orders to stop the state from implementing the new procedures while he considered the case.

“Judge Miller’s decision in the ASEA lawsuit issued today is disappointing but not unexpected based on his quick ruling at the preliminary injunction stage,” said Maria Bahr, an assistant attorney general and spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law.

Molly Brown, an attorney representing ASEA, said she assumes the state will appeal, but Bahr said the state has not yet decided.

“Once the court has entered a final judgment, the state will review to determine next steps in looking at these important constitutional issues,” she said.

“I would hope that the governor and Ben Stevens take a step back and look at the decision and realize that they should stop the radical, crazy challenges to the law that they’ve engaged in,” Metcalfe said when asked about the possibility of an appeal.

“Professionally, I’m ecstatic about prevailing in this court case, but as an Alaskan and someone who’s lived here for almost 63 years, I’m depressed by the fact that we are wasting state resources, spending all this money, and using our time to fight,” he said.

The state is being represented by Consovoy McCarthy, a Washington, D.C.-based firm hired on contract for up to $600 per hour. Last year, the Alaska Legislature approved budgetary language in attempt to force the Dunleavy administration to pursue the issue with the state’s own attorneys. The administration has pressed ahead with Consovoy McCarthy, and the Legislature has ordered an audit of the contract.

Two similar but separate cases involving Alaska are pending in federal appeals court. Those cases involve individual employees suing the state and ASEA. Both cases are on hold, pending the result of a lawsuit brought by a Washington state employee against the state of Washington.

In October, after Clarkson’s departure as attorney general, the Alaska Department of Law wrote in support of the plaintiff in the Washington case, indicating that the state’s support for the matter has outlasted the attorney general himself.

The 9th Circuit subsequently ruled in favor of Washington state, but the plaintiff’s attorneys told the San Francisco Chronicle that they may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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