(Corrects to show Michigan as 24th right-to-work state)
By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has asked the state Supreme Court to rule whether a law passed last month making payment of union dues voluntary is constitutional, a move critics said was designed to circumvent legal challenges by labor unions.
The new law is expected to make it harder for unions to organize in Michigan, the home of the U.S. auto industry and a major manufacturing center.
Snyder on Monday sent a letter to Robert P. Young Jr., the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, asking that the court issue an opinion before its term ends on July 31.
The governor noted that labor unions have publicly promised to challenge the legality of the "right-to-work" law passed by the legislature on Dec. 11.
"The uncertainty over the law's impact upon state civil servants that protracted litigation would create would be very divisive," Snyder wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided by his office.
Democratic leaders in the state legislature said the Republican governor is trying to bypass lower courts in order to get a favorable ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court, which currently has four Republicans and two Democratic judges.
"He is trying to do an end-run around the lower courts to get a favorable ruling," said Robert McCann, press secretary for Gretchen Whitmer, the state senate Democratic leader.
The majority Republican legislature dealt a major blow to labor unions in the home of the U.S. auto industry when it voted to make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state last month.
Right-to-work laws prohibit workers from being forced to financially support a union as a condition of employment.
"Having the Supreme Court rule on this, when it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the case will end up there anyway, could help provide some stability to Michigan's job climate," said Ari Adler, spokesman for Jase Bolger, Republican speaker of the Michigan House.
Detroit, Michigan is the birthplace of the United Auto Workers union. The new law could eventually reduce its power at the negotiating table.
Snyder wrote the letter to the Supreme Court under an authority to ask for an advisory opinion on new laws, his letter says.
Snyder has asked the court to decide whether the public sector law is constitutional because it exempts unionized police and fire department employees, including the Michigan State Police who guarded the Capitol Building during the legislature's right-to-work deliberations.
Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said what Snyder is doing is "totally appropriate" and he has requested the supreme court for rulings in this fashion before.
"The Republicans control the court," said Ballenger. "He's asking a friendly court to look at this."
Ballenger said that by doing so, Snyder is avoiding the Ingham County Circuit Court, where labor unions are likely to file their cases against right-to-work. That circuit, in the county of the state capital Lansing, is dominated by Democrats.
McCann, spokesman for the state senate's Democratic leader, said that even if the supreme court ruled in favor of Snyder, opponents of right-to-work would still be able to file suits challenging the process the legislature used to pass the measure.