GCC alum is part of Supreme Court team fighting for public employee speech rights

Grove City College alumnus William D. Coglianese ’07 is part of an elite team of lawyers behind a high-profile First Amendment case that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, Jan. 11.

Coglianese won’t say a word in court or field a single question from the Justices when they hear oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but he has a pretty good idea of what those questions will be and how they’ll be answered. Coglianese has spent the last year living and breathing the case, which has the potential to upend the way public employee unions are funded and restore the free speech rights of public sector employees who disagree with the political agendas of those unions.

“It doesn’t make sense to say you’re required to support union positions when you don’t agree with them,” Coglianese said. “That’s a real First Amendment problem.”

Coglianese – who studied communications and philosophy at Grove City College before attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was senior editor of the Penn Law Review and graduated magna cum laude – is a member of the global law firm Jones Day’s Issues and Appeals team, which handles cases before the nation’s highest court, federal appeals courts and state trial courts.

This isn’t Coglianese’s first Supreme Court case, but it is the first one that he’s “been on from soup to nuts from the very beginning.”

“My role has been everything from helping to brainstorm the arguments to drafting the arguments and researching different lines of argument, and now, as we’re getting ready for actual oral arguments before the Supreme Court, trying to anticipate every possible issue that could come up, trying to think through every angle,” he said.

Jones Day filed Friedrichs on behalf of 10 California public school teachers who are required under the Supreme Court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision to turn over a portion of their paychecks to a teachers union that they don’t belong to and don’t agree with. Under that decision, public employees who don’t want to join a union and don’t want to support the union’s political causes and candidates can opt out of paying the portion of union dues that go to political work, but must still pay agency fees, which support the union’s supposedly non-political collective bargaining efforts. Abood applies to workers in 23 states that aren’t covered by right-to-work laws.

Over the decades since Abood, it’s becoming increasingly clear that issues raised in collective bargaining – class size, salary structure, protection from termination and others – “are all political issues that people in good faith may strongly disagree over,” Coglianese said

“It’s not so easy to draw a line between what’s political and what’s not,” he said. “And when you’re dealing with public employees, everything is political, even when you are bargaining. The general rule is you can‘t be required to forfeit constitutional rights as a condition of working for government. The question is: Is this really consistent with the First Amendment to say that you have to pay anything to an organization with which you may disagree?”

The lawsuit is asking the Supreme Court to overturn Abood, Coglianese said. It also raises a second question, which is to change the rule that allows employees to opt out of paying for union political expenditures to one that requires them to opt in if they want their money to support the union’s agenda.

“Our position is that if you have a Constitutional right not to support union political activities, then there’s no basis for the union assuming you do support them until you tell them otherwise,” Coglianese said.

Friedrichs has been characterized in the media as an attempt to destroy public sector unions, an idea Coglianese disputes.

“It is entirely a First Amendment case. This is purely a matter of figuring out what the lines are – what the government can and can’t require of you when you take on public employment. It really just has nothing to do with attacking the unions. It is about vindicating core First Amendment rights. It’s always been recognized that the government shouldn’t have the ability to condition important things like public employment on the forfeiture of Constitutional rights and that’s all we’re advancing here,” he said.

On Monday, Jones Day Partner Michael A. Carvin will make the teacher’s case before the Supreme Court. Lawyers for the California Teachers Association, the Attorney General of California and the U.S. Solicitor General will be arguing to maintain the status quo.

While he’s confident that his team is prepared and will prevail, Coglianese said there’s no way of knowing how the justices will rule until they announce their decision sometime before the end of June when the court adjourns. “At the end of the day you can’t really know anything from oral arguments. What matters is what happens when they issue the opinion,” he said.

However the case turns out, Coglianese said he feels privileged to play a role in a case of such significance and thrilled to be a part of the team trying to restore First Amendment rights to public employees. He said his years at Grove City College influenced his work on the case.

“I think that the big connection that I see to my time at Grove City is developing critical thinking skills that would be necessary for looking at something like this, where we’re challenging the status quo and just approaching it from a baseline of: ‘Is this even right in the first place?’ Regardless of whether this was said in the Supreme Court decision 40 years ago, does this align with first principles? And I think I’ve drawn upon everything I learned and experienced at Grove City to just start from square one and develop arguments that really challenge the idea of whether this should be the status quo.”

A native of Pittsburgh’s North Hills, Coglianese said he didn’t intend to become a lawyer when he started at Grove City College, where he ran track in his freshman and sophomore years, served as an RA in Ketler Hall and was president of the Alpha Omega housing group. He also served as teaching assistant for English Professor Betsy Craig, who he said was a big influence on him, as was retired professor of philosophy Dr. Richard Trammell.

Coglianese decided to pursue a law degree in the summer before his senior year when he realized it fit his “skill set,” which included an interest in writing and critical thinking that he honed as a philosophy major. Dr. John Sparks, an attorney and retired dean of the Caldwell School of Arts & Letters at Grove City College, recalls hearing about Coglianese’s very high score on the LSAT exam and, as the College’s pre-law advisor, seeking him out.

“It was clear to me that he actually did not realize how high his score was and that it certainly indicated an aptitude for law,” Sparks said. “His intellectual ability was obvious but he was quiet and humble in his use of his considerable gifts.”

“It is rare for someone who has only be out of law school for under ten years to have been able to play a significant part in a case going to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Sparks noted. 

Coglianese said the opportunity to work on Supreme Court litigation stems largely from his decision to pursue a specialty in appellate litigation.

“Here at Jones Day, I'm surrounded by brilliant attorneys with similar levels of experience who are deeply involved in Supreme Court litigation. I wouldn't want to suggest that I'm unique in getting to work on a Supreme Court case; especially here in D.C. I'm a small fish in a big pond,” he said.

GCC alum is part of Supreme Court team fighting for public employee speech rights

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