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Divided Washington Supreme Court blocks Freedom Foundation political contribution case against unions

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 18, 2021

The Temple of Justice in Olympia, home of the Washington state Supreme Court.   (The Spokesman-Review)
The Temple of Justice in Olympia, home of the Washington state Supreme Court.  (The Spokesman-Review)

A narrowly divided Washington Supreme Court on Thursday threw out several legal challenges filed by a conservative think tank against state employee unions alleging violations of campaign finance laws.

The 5-4 opinion ruled that challenges brought by the Freedom Foundation against Teamsters Local 117, Service Employees International Union 775 and Gov. Jay Inslee were not timely filed under Washington state law.

The Freedom Foundation alleged the unions were not properly reporting expenses of political activities.

Because the Freedom Foundation’s filing, known as a “citizen action,” was made after the state Attorney General’s Office and Washington Public Disclosure Commission examined the alleged campaign violations and opted to take no action, the courts did not rule whether the unions were properly reporting political contributions made out of a separate fund.

The provision of law allowing private citizens or groups to take legal action is intended as a way for citizens to seek their own resolution of campaign finance reporting violations in court, absent action by prosecutors within a certain time frame.

State law requires such a citizen’s action be taken within 10 days of the state Attorney General or a local prosecutor’s office declining to pursue a charge of a campaign violation. In each of the three cases struck down by the Supreme Court on Thursday, the Freedom Foundation took much longer than the 10-day window to file citizen’s actions. The Freedom Foundation has filed numerous legal actions against public-sector unions in Washington and been targeted by Attorney General Bob Ferguson for alleged campaign violations of its own.

A dissent authored by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud found that the statutory requirements for filing an action were vague. The state Legislature rewrote portions of election enforcement law in 2018, and some of those changes were intended to reduce the uncertainty about the filing deadline.

“It’s not fair to force plaintiffs to comply with that kind of indecipherable notice provision on pain of losing their right to come to court at all,” McCloud wrote in her dissenting opinion.

The court did not award either side the attorney’s fees they were requesting in the case.

Teamsters Local 117 represents 17,000 employees in Washington, both in the private and public sectors. SEIU represents 45,000 health care workers in Washington and Montana, and the Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit included Inslee because of the union’s connection to the health care industry and state Department of Health.

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