Christine Stuart file photo
Former Gov. John G. Rowland (Christine Stuart file photo)

(Updated 4:30 p.m.) After nearly a decade of litigation, a federal judge ruled   this week that former Gov. John G. Rowland’s decision to layoff 2,800 unionized state employees at the end of 2002 was not a violation their First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Alfred Covello concluded that the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition’s complaint did not meet the constitutional threshold it needed to merit a violation of the First Amendment.

“The plaintiffs have failed to persuade the court that their union association, in and of itself, raises a matter of public concern and is the type of ‘speech’ or ‘assembly’ that warrants constitutional protection,” Covello wrote.

Covello also dismissed SEBAC’s equal protection and contract clause claims. 

Lawyers for SEBAC have promised to appeal the decision to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Judge Covello specifically did not rule on the issues arising from Rowland’s explicit statements that, in his decisions to terminate union members, he was deliberately acting with anti-union intent,” David S. Golub, the lawyer for SEBAC, said in a statement. “The First Amendment clearly forbids a public official from firing public employees based on their union membership. Governor Rowland admitted that the intent to retaliate against the unions and their members was the reason for his actions.”

“Judge Covello specifically recognized that such conduct can be a violation of the First Amendment, and we intend to continue to pursue the pending claims based on that anti-union animus.” Golub added.

Leo Canty, vice president of AFT-CT, said the coalition will be going forward with the appeal because the whole issue of First Amendment rights really wasn’t addressed by the court.

“It’s just one step in a longer process,” Canty said.

According to the lawsuit, back in December of 2002 when the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition refused to re-open its contract and give the state concessions, Rowland ordered his budget director, Marc Ryan, to “target union workers.” The union workers who received layoff notices contended there was no financial incentive to warrant their termination.

The lawsuit was lodged on behalf of 13 unions and five individuals and it claimed Rowland crossed the line between the need to win concessions and unconstitutional conduct by targeting only union employees. 

None of the non-union state employees were issued layoff notices and more than half the union employees issued notices returned to work in 2003.

SEBAC argued in court that Rowland retaliated against them for asserting their union rights under the 20 year contract he initiated with them back in 1997.

Attorneys for the state argued that the collective bargaining dispute was an employment matter, not a matter of public concern with constitutional rights.

Regardless of Covello’s ruling issued Wednesday and released Friday, his lack of a decision earlier this week had some worried it could impact the current situation involving SEBAC’s rejection of the concession package and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s decision to layoff nearly 6,700 state employees in order to balance the budget.

There was speculation that if Covello ruled in favor of SEBAC Malloy may not be able to issue the layoff orders he needs in order to balance the budget.

“We’re glad to be relieved of a liability based on claims against a previous administration,” Colleen Flanagan, Malloy’s spokeswoman, said Friday.

It took Covello almost 10 months to issue his ruling. Final arguments on the constitutional provisions concluded last September.