Costs set to jump again for state in controversial union dues collection case

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Costs continue to increase for the state in a legal battle between the Department of Law and labor unions about the collection of union dues, despite recent court loses by the state.

The Department of Law put out a Request for Proposal today for a $500,000 to $600,000 legal project for a law firm to continue “to defend the Attorney General’s opinion concerning the interpretation of the Janus decision and the governor’s order implementing the decision.”

The Department of Law announced in August that it was not in compliance with the Janus decision and in September announced a program in which the state would oversee the collection of union dues in order, it argued, to ensure workers’ free speech. That interpretation was put on hold though, first with a temporary restraining order in early October and with a preliminary injunction on Nov. 5.

But the state doesn’t seem to think the issue will be resolved any time soon.

Among the requirements for the new contract: attorneys admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar, having an office in the Washington D.C. metro area, and having appeared before the Supreme Court.

“Oh yeah when I saw that I knew right away the plan was to take it to the Supreme Court,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, referring to the new request for proposal that came out today.

While the new request for proposals signals an escalation in size, an Outside firm has already been working on the case. A contract for $50,000 of legal work was signed by Consovoy McCarthy, PLLC, a Washington-based law firm, on Aug. 2, and that contract was raised to $100,000 in late October. That left little doubt on the state’s intentions.

Consovoy McCarthy listed “Alaska discounted rates” of $600 an hour for the services for two of the firm’s partners, William Consovoy and Michael Connolly, and $450 for another associate, something that Wielechowski says is high for any Alaska firms.

“I think the standard attorney fees are around $200, top rate might be $250, $300, but I don't know any attorneys in Alaska that charge anywhere near that,” he said.

But the new proposal is still nowhere the millions that Wielechowski estimates the litigation will cost by the time it gets to the Supreme Court.

"When you got attorneys charging $600 bucks an hour, that goes pretty quick, so I knew when I saw the initial $100,000 I thought this is a couple-million dollar case if it goes to the Supreme Court, easily."

Meanwhile, labor unions slammed the escalation of costs. Joelle Hall of the AFL-CIO union called the decision to increase the contract limit “outrageous” in light of social service reductions around the state. She said the interpretation is just an example of outside influence.

“We're a suitable host,” she said. “We have an attorney general who - his record shows he is not afraid of going to court with unconventional ideas. He loses on these ideological issues all the time, so he's willing to risk his reputation and then you have a governor who is willing to let him do it.”

It would take at least another Superior Court decision - which has already twice struck down the state’s interpretation - then an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. If that gets denied, as Wielechowski thinks it will, then it could head to federal courts. Wielechowski says court failures along the way are likely.

“I’ve talked to attorneys from all over the country about this, and no other state in the country is taking the interpretation that the Dunleavy Administration has taken. They know they're gonna lose,” he said.

But Wielechowski himself says that if it does make it to the Supreme Court, there’s no way of knowing how the conservative-leaning bench will rule.

“It would take a new reading of the law - a different reading by the Supreme Court to go that direction - which is possible, it's not impossible, but it would be absolutely creating new law,” he said.

The Department of Law representatives weren’t available to comment, but wrote in an email that “Decisions to use outside counsel vary greatly depending on the type of case at issue and the resources Law has at any given time.”

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