Pr. George's Furloughs Violated U.S. Constitution, Judge Rules

By Jonathan Mummolo and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Prince George's County violated the U.S. Constitution when it furloughed 5,900 workers in the last fiscal year, a decision that could force the county to repay millions in wages in the midst of a crippling economic downturn.

The ruling, which the county plans to appeal, has the potential to upend a key Prince George's strategy for combating deficits. A county spokesman said in a statement that the decision would result in "massive layoffs" if it stands.

"As a result of this [economic] crisis, the county made a difficult decision to furlough its employees for 10 days, saving $17 million," James P. Keary, spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), said in the statement. "The court has substituted its judgment without acknowledging the economic challenges facing the country. . . . In order to protect their jobs and the lives of employees and their families we will be filing an appeal to remedy this irresponsible decision."

But U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. wrote that although he is mindful that local governments are facing financial challenges "in the midst of a global recession," officials could have turned to other "more moderate alternatives" to trim the budget.

"Although the County suggests to the Court that it faced dire circumstances and had no other reasonable alternatives, the record suggests otherwise and the County's actions resemble trappings of doing that which was politically expedient," Williams wrote in his 43-page opinion.

Last month, the County Council approved a second round of 10-day furloughs for the new fiscal year that started in July. In light of the ruling, a union leader Tuesday called on the county to halt implementation of those furloughs, though it is unclear whether that will happen. It also remains to be seen whether the ruling will set a precedent for other jurisdictions, which have considered furloughs as revenue has fallen below expectations.

Vince Canales, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police -- one of the plaintiffs in the suit -- said he was pleased with the judge's ruling, but is ready for a long legal battle.

"We were always very optimistic that we would be successful," Canales said. "We're very happy with the decision from the judge, but we are aware that this is just a first step in a long process."

Several unions filed suit against the county last year, alleging that officials violated collective bargaining agreements by imposing the furloughs. In his opinion, Williams sided with the unions on one of three counts, finding that the county violated the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars states from passing laws "impairing the obligation of contracts."

The furloughs reduced employees' "salaries/wages and hours," which were guaranteed under contracts "not subject to unilateral adjustment by the County," Williams wrote. "To find otherwise would render the contracts virtually meaningless."

Williams ordered both sides to "consult and discuss the means and manner of refunding any monies owed to Union employees as a result of having complied with the [furlough plan], and, if necessary, submit a joint proposal for the Court's approval" within 10 days.

He sided with the county on two other counts, which alleged that the furlough plan violated the county's personnel laws.

Williams also wrote that the ruling "is not a pronouncement regarding furloughs in general" but applies to the specific circumstances in Prince George's.

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