The Supreme Court deadlocked on a case involving the constitutionality of public employees being required to pay dues and fees to unions is a victory for organized labor, but the door remains open to future legal challenges.
The 4-4 split Tuesday was mainly due to the absence of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February after opening arguments were made on Friedrichs v. California State Teachers Association. The case involves Rebecca Friedrichs and other teachers who sought First Amendment protection from being forced to pay what they called “inherently political” union dues, or face termination if they declined to do so.
The Center for Individual Rights, a right-wing law firm that argued the case for Friedrichs, said California teachers pay approximately $650 a year in agency fees to the union that support work on collective bargaining agreements “that enshrine policies like teacher tenure, last in-first out layoff rules and school assignments based on seniority, not need.”
CIR added in its statement that the plaintiffs object to the union’s positions on “these political issues” and that their employment and benefits should not hinge on funding positions they don’t agree with. It was largely believed that the conservative Scalia would have sided with the plaintiffs.
The deadlock reaffirms the decision by U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, who cited the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that upheld the constitutionality of unions’ rights to charge the dues. As that decision only stands in Michigan, federal employees and public sector employees in 23 other states cannot be forced to pay agency fees to unions as a condition of their employment.
The National School Boards Association said Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association signified “a major threat to public employee unions that represent nearly 36 percent of government workers,” which represents far more than all other workers currently being represented by unions nationwide.
In a statement, the National Education Association opined that school bus drivers are among public employees who benefit from the Friedrichs decision. NEA referred to the union dues as “fair share fees” that are “critical in effectively managing (unions') substantial public workforce and ensure the efficient delivery of quality public services.”
Meanwhile, CIR said it plans to seek a rehearing as early as June, as it said the constitutionality question remains, leaving an opening for future cases.
“In this case, the lower court (the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals) was forced to rule against Friedrichs and the other teachers because they are challenging a previous Supreme Court decision and only the Supreme Court can overturn its own opinions,” CIR wrote in a statement.
As USA Today reported Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in 2012 that a California public employee union could not impose an additional fee on workers without their assent. Two years later, the justices ruled 5-4 that Medicaid-funded, home-care workers in Illinois did not have to pay dues to public employee unions because they do not constitute typical state workers.
The article continued that, while neither case overruled Abood, a clear trend had developed. Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the Supreme Court’s conservative 2014 majority that, except in rare circumstances, “no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”
The Friedrichs case now hinges upon President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland as the next Supreme Court justice. The Republican-majority Senate has moved to block his confirmation until after the presidential election this fall.
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