As a rule, justice in California is neither swift nor sure. But when you finally get a taste of it, boy is it sweet.
The Freedom Foundation savored just such a moment in early August when it received word that San Bernardino County (Calif.) was finally ready to cut a check for $75,000 to cover the organization’s litigating costs for a lawsuit it filed more than three years ago after the county refused a legal request for what were clearly public documents.
The controversy began when the Freedom Foundation’s just-opened California office filed a legal request for the contact information of every San Bernardino County public employee, as well as the union with which they were affiliated. This information is crucial to the Freedom Foundation’s mission because without knowing who works for state, county and local governments, the organization would be unable to inform them about a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming that mandatory union membership and dues are a violation of the First Amendment.
Since the ruling was issued five years ago, unions have done everything they can — legal or otherwise — to suppress these rights and prevent the Freedom Foundation from communicating with their members. Rather than the expected adversarial management/union relationship, public unions often have very cozy relationships with government employers. This can lead government employers to reject public records requests in an effort to be protective of the unions with which they bargain.
San Bernardino County, in fact, denied most of the information the Freedom Foundation requested, including the employees’ contact information, forcing the organization to file a lawsuit in July 2020.
Last November, the Superior Court of San Bernardino County agreed the Freedom Foundation was entitled to the contact information for county employees— information already freely provided to the unions — and ordered the county to compensate the organization for the costs incurred in the lawsuit.
During the entire ordeal, county officials continued to drag their feet and cause needless — and expensive — delays.
“The meter was running,” said Eric Stahlfeld, the Freedom Foundation’s chief litigation counsel. “The longer the case dragged on, the more time we spent on it and the higher their bill kept getting.
“In cases like this, government agencies know they’re playing with house money,” Stahlfeld explained. “They couldn’t care less how much the process costs or how long it takes. That’s why ordinary people either don’t bother suing the government or don’t stick with it very long. They don’t have endless streams of money to pay lawyers.”
The Superior Court issued its initial decision on June 17, 2022, and even after discovering they had violated California public record laws, San Bernardino officials continued to stall for more than a year before handing over the check.
For the Freedom Foundation, the money is important, but what matters far more is the statement it makes to state and local government employers.
“This is not only a major victory for the Freedom Foundation, but it is also a win for public record laws and public employees who want to learn of their constitutional right to leave their union,” said Bob Wickers, director of the Freedom Foundation’s California operations. “We sent a clear message that the government can no longer just run out the clock on public record requests. We’re in it for the long haul and we’ll see these battles through to the end.”