HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen vowed Thursday to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that said former Gov. John G. Rowland's administration violated unionized state employees' constitutional rights when he laid off 2,800 of them in 2003.
Jepsen said in a statement that the May 31 ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan could have "potentially significant consequences for Connecticut taxpayers." Rowland has said the appellate court ruling would make it harder for governors and local officials across the country to negotiate contracts with unions.
Officials have not yet figured out how much money the ruling could cost the state.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit ruled that the 2,800 workers were laid off because of their union membership and that their First Amendment right of freedom of association with unions was violated. No non-union workers were laid off. The appellate court's ruling overturned a 2011 decision by Hartford U.S. District Judge Alfred V. Covello in favor of the Rowland administration, which denied wrongdoing.
The 2nd Circuit ordered a lower court to determine what to award the laid-off employees, many of whom later were rehired by the state to fill vacancies after other workers retired or left for other reasons.
Rowland's administration warned union leaders in late 2002 that it would lay off the workers unless they accepted wage freezes to help the state close budget deficits. The unions balked, and the workers got pink slips. Union officials called the layoffs retaliation for refusing to cave in to the administration's demands and said union members were being singled out.
State employees, labor unions and the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition sued Rowland, a Republican, and his budget director, Marc Ryan, in 2003 over the layoffs. The coalition includes state employee union leaders.
Daniel E. Livingston, a lawyer and chief negotiator for the coalition, said union leaders are disappointed with Jepsen's decision to take the case to the Supreme Court.
"We believe without question that the court got it right," Livingston said. "When a governor punishes people because of the group to which they belong — whether it's a union or a political party, or a religion — he or she violates our Constitution's most cherished provisions. Now is the time to move on to determining the best way to undue the harm Rowland and Ryan did."
Rowland and Ryan disagree with the 2nd Circuit's decision and had urged state officials to appeal it either to the full 2nd Circuit Court or the U.S. Supreme Court. Rowland said last week that the ruling would have a chilling effect on government leaders.
"This decision ... will have significant impact on all future budget negotiations here in Connecticut, nationally, and even locally," Rowland said.
The current governor, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, has criticized Rowland's actions back in 2003, saying he "crossed the line."
Andrew Doba, Malloy's spokesman, said in a statement Thursday, "The Second Circuit's decision that the Rowland administration violated employees' First Amendment rights means that Rowland's actions have now exposed Connecticut's taxpayers to potentially significant costs. So while Governor Malloy never supported the approach John Rowland took, he understands the Attorney General's decision."
The layoffs were part of hundreds of millions of dollars in labor savings needed to fill a $1 billion deficit in the 2003 fiscal year and deficits of $2 billion and more in the next two fiscal years.
The lawsuit against the Rowland administration has been pending for so long because of court filings and rulings, including one by the 2nd Circuit in 2007 that rejected the Rowland administration's claims of immunity by government officials against lawsuits.
Rowland, a Republican, resigned from the governor's office in July 2004 amid a federal corruption investigation. He pleaded guilty to a corruption charge and served 10 months in a federal prison camp. He now has an afternoon talk show on WTIC-AM in the Hartford area.
Associated Press writer Susan Haigh contributed to this report.