Patrick Wright at AFL-CIO debate
Vice President for Legal Affairs Patrick Wright defends the merits of Rebecca Friedrichs' case against the California Teachers Association at a debate with the AFL-CIO.

n email from Mark Cousens to Mackinac Center Legal Foundation Director Patrick Wright was a somewhat surprising compliment. Cousens is a lawyer who has been representing union interests for over four decades, including in several Mackinac Center legal battles. Wright and Cousens appeared on separate sides of the bargaining table over wording of various ballot initiatives that were on the 2012 ballot. Their interactions have always been courteous and cordial no matter the stakes or the outcome of any particular hearing.

Cousens sent his email in his capacity as the treasurer of the Detroit Area Chapter of the Labor and Employment Relations Association, a trade group of professionals who work in employment relations. Cousens, aware of the foundation’s interest and amicus brief in the Supreme Court case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, sought to set up a panel discussion on the Friedrichs case with Wright and Lynn Rhinehart, who is the Co-General Counsel of the AFL-CIO.

Many legal observers predict that Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will be one of the most important cases of the United States Supreme Court’s current term. It addresses the question of whether public sector unions can impose agency fees on nonmembers who are in the bargaining unit or whether this conduct violates the First Amendment. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation has filed two amicus briefs — one asking the Supreme Court to take the case (it did) and a second on the merits. Both of those briefs have drawn the attention of legal professionals and interested observers.

The panel discussion occurred on Nov. 19, 2015, before 30-40 labor specialists from southeast Michigan. Wright and Rhinehart pleasantly and passionately discussed the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the Friedrichs case and agreed on a number of issues that would be important in the oral arguments. They both believed that Justice Scalia would likely be the fifth vote for the winning side, that the question of whether the government was acting as an employer would be important in ultimately determining whether agency fees were permissible.

Not surprisingly, there were many differences as well. A spirited question-and-answer session with the audience occurred after their remarks. Many audience members, regardless of their rooting interests, made it a point to thank both speakers at the conclusion of the event. The evening ended with Rhinehart and Wright exchanging signed copies of their respective briefs.

Cousens and LERA President Steve Schwartz sent Wright some chocolates and a thank you letter following the November event. At a court hearing soon thereafter, Cousens jokingly requested that MCLF lawyer Derk Wilcox make certain the Mackinac Center staff knew those were union provided chocolates. If he had only told us earlier, they would have been divided by the Center staff on the basis of seniority.