LANSING, Mich. — Michigan's conservative Supreme Court is seeking to reconcile whether 31,000 unionized state employees are covered by a right-to-work law, hearing opposing arguments Tuesday on whether lawmakers stepped on the turf of a panel that regulates labor conditions for those staffers.
The 2012 law says public workers in Michigan cannot be forced to pay union fees as a condition of having a job. Another law also enacted two years ago by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and GOP lawmakers applies to private employees.
The high court considered two dueling sections of the state constitution — one that says the Legislature may pass laws relative to "conditions of employment" and another saying the Civil Service Commission shall "regulate all conditions of employment in the (state) classified service."
Justices also pressed for answers on whether collective bargaining is an employment condition or instead a process that results in working conditions.
"The Legislature is not allowed to meddle in the classified service," said William Wertheimer, an attorney for four state worker unions that sued. A fifth state employee union, which represents 1,600 state police troopers and sergeants, is not involved in the lawsuit because the right-to-work law exempts police and firefighters.
The Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision in 2013, ruled against the unions and the four-member Civil Service Commission.
Wertheimer told justices that the appeals court ignored the high court's 1978 opinion that when constitutional provisions conflict, the more "specific" term wins out over the more "general" one.
But assistant attorney general Ann Sherman countered that the Legislature has "very broad policymaking and rulemaking authority" and the commission should not be "a fourth branch of government."
A lawyer for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce also urged the court to apply the right-to-work law to state workers.
The court, which has five Republican nominees and two Democratic nominees, appeared to be skeptical of the unions' argument.
Justice Stephen Markman said the constitution gives the Legislature the "distinctive" power to enact laws, suggesting that the provision clarifies and limits the Civil Service Commission's authority to regulate employment conditions.
Justices also heard on Tuesday the state's appeal of a 2013 appeals court ruling that said 16,000 veteran state employees hired before April 1997 — roughly a third of the overall 47,000-member state workforce — do not have to contribute 4 percent of their pay to get a full pension in retirement because a 2011 law is unconstitutional.
The case, like the right-to-work dispute, likely will define the constitutional powers of the Civil Service Commission, which has clashed with Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature over policies for the government workforce.
The commission was until recently dominated by appointees of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of July in both cases.