The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a Utah federal judge's finding that a state law banning government payroll deductions for political organizations is unconstitutional.

In its decision issued Thursday, the Denver-based circuit court agreed with U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell's March ruling. She found that a 2001 law passed by the Utah Legislature banning payroll deductions by political organizations for employees of school districts and other government entities, violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.

The ruling also clarifies what level of control the Utah Legislature has over other entities, such as local governments and school districts.

Attorneys for the state had argued that banning voluntary payroll contributions to groups, such as the Utah Education Association, maintained political neutrality.

Attorneys for the UEA, along with five other labor organizations that included the Professional Firefighters of Utah and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, argued that the state was over-reaching its authority by directing what independent municipalities can or cannot do with their payroll.

The case stems from a years-long political battle between the Utah Legislature and UEA, which lobbies over education issues at the Capitol. For the past few years, UEA has been credited with repeatedly helping to thwart voucher and tuition tax credit legislation. Its political action committee often funds and gives manpower to candidates opposing such measures.

The 10th Circuit judges noted that the state had argued such a ban would preclude political expression in government offices and prevent pressure from superiors to promote certain political views. The circuit judges supported Campbell's view that "the decision to contribute to a political activity by means of payroll deductions is a private matter between the employer and employee."

"Obviously we are disappointed," said assistant Utah attorney general Nancy Kemp. The ruling, Kemp said, does provide some guidance for the state since such a ruling has little precedent. "The state now does have some guidance from the court. It's always good to have guidance."

Kemp said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently found a similar law in Idaho unconstitutional, but the 6th Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a similar law in Ohio.

The Utah Attorney General's Office has yet to decide whether or not it will make a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

UEA general counsel Mike McCoy says the court battle already has cost the state about $700,000, plus another $150,000 in attorneys fees by the UEA the state likely will have to pay, to continue the fight through federal courts and appeals. "Obviously, we're very pleased about it, and our hope is the Legislature will cease to engage in activities that ... ultimately violate the First Amendment of the Constitution and instead try to work constructively with us rather than continue this punitive line of action."

Contributing: Jennifer Toomer-Cook

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