A group that supports Missouri’s new right to work law filed to have a court case moved to the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Shortly after Governor Greitens signed the right to work bill in February, labor unions sought to place the law before a public vote.
A Kansas City attorney and The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation represent plaintiffs who are trying to thwart a union signature gathering campaign that, if successful, would secure a spot on the ballot for the law.
They’ve targeted language in a ballot summary, which is attached to documents canvassers carry as they’re gathering signatures.
They claim the language in the summary is vague, misleading and confusing.
A circuit court judge in Jefferson City agreed with them and rewrote the summary, The unions responded by appealing to a higher court. A three judge panel at the state’s Western District Court of Appeals in Kansas City sided with the unions and reinserted the language they favored.
The Kansas City attorney, Edward Greim, and the Right to Work Foundation then asked the appeals court to transfer the case to the state Supreme Court. After having their request declined, Greim and the foundation applied Wednesday directly to the high court to consider the case.
Greim contends lower benches have misinterpreted a 2012 Supreme Court case known as Brown versus Carnahan, which set standards for how ballot summaries should be drawn up. He thinks the high court should once again take up the issue.
“If they don’t, then the courts below, the way they’ve read Brown vs. Carnahan, is going to lead to ballot titles that make no sense” said Greim. “People will be signing petitions and voting in the voting booth, casting votes that they don’t really intend to cast.”
Jefferson City attorney Chuck Hatfield, who’s representing the unions in the proceedings, notes the ballot summary was written by Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. Hatfield contends Ashcroft would have no incentive to tip the ballot summary’s language in favor of the unions.
“Jay Ashcroft’s on record as being in support of the right to work law” said Hatfield. “We suspect he’ll vote to uphold the right to work law. So he’s not exactly on our side on these issues. But I think he did the right thing. He did a reasonable job of drafting that language.”
In Missouri, ballot measures such as the one now being litigated, are written by the Secretary of State. Several other state departments, including the Attorney General, must approve the language before the Secretary of State gives the final go-ahead for signatures to be gathered.
Ashcroft is named along with Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis in the lawsuit brought by right to work proponents. Still, Hatfield thinks it would be a reach to suggest Ashcroft gamed the language to favor the union side, given his political leanings.
“I assume there are different ways that secretaries’ of state could tinker with the language so it would be more likely to have yes or no votes. I think it would be pretty outrageous to think that Secretary Ashcroft was tinkering with the language to try to help the labor movement.”
There’s no guarantee the Supreme Court will take up the case. Greim acknowledges the high bench typically lets errors in law develop into longer term trends before choosing to weigh in.
But he thinks in this case, the high court should consider the consequences of having vague and confusing language in a ballot summary.
“You can’t allow just mangled and mistaken language to be printed on the ballot, because you are guaranteeing that a certain percentage of people are going to vote no for that reason alone. And we think, as a matter of law, that has got to fail.”
In the document asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, Greim includes political research showing that voters either stop casting a vote or vote no once they encounter confusing language on a ballot.
In addition to their claim that the ballot summary is confusing, Greim and the National Right to Work Foundation object to its use of the phrase “fair share”. Greim contends the term is appropriate for election campaigns, but has no place on the ballot.
“It is actually a talking point that unions use to say that, when people are forced to pay dues for the union representation, that is their fair share. You should make them pay their fair share.”
Right to work proponents hope the Supreme Court will quickly toss out the ballot summary language. Otherwise, the unions will likely meet an August 28th deadline to have the necessary signatures to get the law before a vote.
The canvassers need to gather roughly 100,000 valid signatures to make that happen.
The possibility that the unions will prevail in the courts has motivated right to work supporters with connections to dark money.
The Kansas City Star reported this week that two nonprofits donated $600,000 to political action committees working to protect the right to work law. As non-profits that are classified 501(c)(4) entities, the organizations don’t have to report their donors.