Like a rooster claiming credit for the sunrise, Gov. Bruce Rauner crowed into a bouquet of microphones on the steps of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday about a significant ruling that went against public employee unions.
Newspapers and TV stations dutifully heralded the decision as a major win for the governor, but I don’t see it that way.
Rauner’s claim to being significantly involved in the case is false. He repeatedly said such things as “we’re gonna win,” even though for the last three years he’s been nothing more than a cheerleader for plaintiff Mark Janus, a state employee.
That’s not me ragging on Rauner again. It’s Patrick Hughes, president of the Liberty Justice Center, part of Janus’ legal team, in a Feb. 19 letter to Rauner telling him to knock off the grandstanding.
“Yes, you initiated the Janus case by issuing an executive order in 2015. But that’s where your involvement ended,” wrote Hughes. “Saying otherwise and implying continued involvement is dishonest.”
Even that harsh assessment overstated Rauner’s importance. The successful challenge to laws that allow public-sector unions to collect “agency fees” from state workers who choose not to belong to unions yet who enjoy the benefits of union membership actually began in California in 2013, when Rauner was still a private citizen.
In Orange County, a group of public school teachers represented by a conservative public-interest law firm challenged the imposition of mandatory fees on First Amendment grounds. That case — Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association — made it to oral argument at the Supreme Court on Jan. 11, 2016, and most observers predicted the teachers would prevail.
But conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly a little more than a month later, and the cased ended, unresolved, in a 4-4 deadlock.
The confirmation of a ninth justice, Neil Gorsuch, in early 2017, revived the issue, and Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 was the logical next case in the pipeline.
Yes, Rauner had initiated that redundant suit shortly after he took office in January 2015, but four months later a federal judge ruled he had no standing and removed him as a plaintiff.
By the numbers: Janus ruling and 873,110 union-covered workers in Illinois »
5 things to know about Illinois state government employee Mark Janus — and his Supreme Court victory »
Wednesday, Liberty Justice Center co-founder John Tillman, CEO of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, stood beside Rauner to praise him “for having the vision, the leadership and the courage” to initiate the case “at great risk and under great criticism.”
Courage? To go to the courts in an effort to fulfill a campaign promise he knew he couldn’t get through the General Assembly?
A great risk? To make good on the invective he’d already hurled at the public-sector unions?
Tillman, who in February was blasting the governor as a failure and saying the IPI would never again accept his money, called the Janus decision “an amazing policy legacy” for Rauner.
No. Policy is hard-won in the legislative trenches.
A win for your side at the Supreme Court is the result of a concerted legal effort. And in this case it could also be the result of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision in 2016 to decline to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, Merrick Garland, who might well have tipped the 5-4 decision for Janus the other way. Instead McConnell delayed consideration of any nominee until after the inauguration of a new president, whereupon President Donald Trump was able to install the conservative Gorsuch.
And talk of Rauner’s “win” here is additionally complicated by the question of whether being identified with the Janus case — even if only as an outspoken fan of the plaintiff’s cause — will end up being seen as a political plus for Rauner in his re-election bid this year. Though they like to cloak their advocacy with gauzy platitudes about freedom of speech, those backing the Janus effort, including Rauner, are plainly motivated by a desire to destroy public-sector unions.
These unions, for all their flaws, have provided a bulwark against the decline of the middle class and the widening income gap.
If what we’ve seen in nearly every other state is a guide, the free-market advocacy groups now purring about their desire merely to give state workers the right to decide will soon pour tens of millions of dollars into an effort to persuade them to decide to keep their union dues and let other suckers pay the freight.
Only if voters in November signal their approval to the fallout from that effort will it be right to call this a victory for Rauner.