Who’s paying to defend local right-to-work?

In late 2014, when Warren County became the first in Kentucky to enact a local right-to-work law, there were assurances that the legal costs would be picked up by a Florida-based group, Protect My Check.

Since then, 11 other counties have enacted similar anti-union ordinances, which a federal judge in Louisville last week ruled are illegal.

The ruling came in a challenge brought by a union to Hardin County’s ordinance. U.S. District Judge David Hale shredded every argument offered by Hardin County and others who filed briefs on behalf of local right-to-work laws, which ban labor agreements requiring employees to join or pay dues to a union.

Hale found that only states and territories, not local governments, have been empowered by Congress to enact such exceptions to federal labor law. The judge wrote that he would have to ignore loads of precedent to uphold the contested ordinance.

The ruling was unsurprising. The legal minds behind the local right-to-work movement have always been aiming for the U.S. Supreme Court.

What might be surprising is that 112 other Kentucky counties are helping to pay for this quixotic quest, through premiums to their insurer, the Kentucky Association of Counties.

Hardin County has said it will appeal. KACO has not decided whether it will foot the bill for that appeal.

Counties ordinarily need insurance to defend themselves when an employee or inmate sues or a planning and zoning decision is challenged. KACO warned local government officials last year that a county racking up legal bills after diving into unknown legal waters would see its premiums rise.

Proponents of local right-to-work laws — most prominently, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity — are hopeful that high-court decisions in 1991 and 2000 have paved the way for a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court. But the judge in Kentucky rejected their interpretation of those rulings, saying they relied on “carefully selected quotations” from cases unrelated to labor law.

We suspect that the majority of counties that have not enacted anti-union laws would rather not be subject to higher premiums to cover legal expenses for those that have.

Protect My Check, which as a 501(c)(4) organization does not have to reveal its donors, is headed by Tampa attorney and former Kentuckian Brent Yessin. Now would be a good time for the deep pockets behind the movement to pick up the legal tab.

Proponents insist that local right-to-work laws send a strong pro-business message that will promote economic development. Let’s hope they’re right and that Hardin and the 11 other counties don’t just come off as places where politicians were manipulated into intentionally picking a legal fight with labor.