A case before the Supreme Court ended in a 4-4 tie, thus delivering a signal victory to labor unions representing government workers. The death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia changed the balance in the court that in January of this year appeared poised to be decided against the unions. It was before Scalia’s death in February that the high court appeared likely to rule forcing government employees to support labor union that they did not want to join would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Today’s decision in the case, which was brought before the Supreme Court by California public school teachers who chose not to join labor unions because they objected to paying for collective bargaining on their behalf, essentially leaves undisturbed an earlier decision by a federal appeals court. In California, public sectors employees who do not to join unions must nevertheless pay a “fair share service fee,” which is also known as an “agency fee.” The fee is usually equivalent in amount to members’ dues. The fees, under the California law, are intended to pay for collective bargaining activities and the “the cost of lobbying activities.” More than 20 states have similar laws.
With a pithy one sentence statement that provided no reasoning, the Supreme Court essentially upheld a lower court’s decision that public sector employees can indeed be charged union dues. The labor unions, such as the National Education Association, would have lost fees paid to them by dissenting public sector employees and also those who simply refuse to join.
Public sector workers, who are not union members, are able to obtain refunds for unions’ political activities such as the funding of political campaigns. Also, in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, No. 14-915, which was handed down today, when asked whether such workers must continue to pay for any union activities, including negotiating for better wages and benefits, a majority of the justices seemed inclined to say no. After the Supreme Court heard the case on January 12, it appeared that it was destined for a 5-4 decision in favor of the plaintiffs.
An appeals court had earlier relied on a 1977 Supreme Court precedent that had upheld a judgement that required objecting teachers pay fees. Today’s announcement said only that the “judgment is affirmed by an equally divided court,” affirmed that earlier ruling and set no new precedent.
Lyle Denniston, writing at ScotusBlog.com said that today’s ruling leaves intact, albeit “on an uncertain legal foundation,” the abovementioned system of “agency fees” for non-unionized teachers in California. However, the writer at the respected website wrote that legal doubts for public sector labor unions will linger until a ninth Justice is confirmed sometime in the future. President Obama has nominated Judge Merrick Garland, but has encountered objections by the Republican majority in the Senate that argues that the confirmation should come only after the next president is elected.
The practical effect of the announcement today was, not only to leave the earlier decision unchanged, but it also means no precedent was reached and the constitutional matter remains undecided.
The Center for Individual Rights, an advocacy group involved in the Friedrichs case, said earlier that it would ask the Supreme Court to schedule a new hearing should there be a tie. The group said it expected that the case would be put off until the Court’s new term, which starts on October 3.
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