SCOTUS Deadlocks on Public Union Case

Ruling means public sector employees can still be forced to pay dues

March 29, 2016

Government employees will still be forced to pay coercive union dues after the Supreme Court deadlocked on a California teacher’s lawsuit against her union.

The court released its ruling on Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association, splitting 4-4 along ideological lines. The tie handed a victory to the union since the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of unions and public sector entities to mandate union dues as a condition of employment, a precedent established by the high court in Abood v. Detroit (1977).

California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs challenged the four-decade-old precedent, claiming that paying dues to the California Teachers Association represented coercive political speech since union bargaining centered on taxpayer dollars.

Terry Pell, the president of the public interest law firm Center for Individual Rights, said that the result was expected after the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February. He said his legal team is preparing a petition to rehear the case before the court again.

"With the death of Justice Scalia, this outcome was not unexpected," Pell said in a statement. "We believe this case is too significant to let a split decision stand and we will file a petition for re-hearing with the Supreme Court."

The union hailed the decision as "victory for teachers." CTA president Eric Heins dismissed Friedrichs’ claim that dues violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly, saying that the entire case was a "political ploy."

"This decision is a victory for educators and all public employees, but most importantly a victory for the millions of students of California and across the U.S.," he said in a release. "The Supreme Court rejected a political ploy by the wealthy corporate special interests backing this case to make it harder for working families and the middle class to come together, speak up for each other and get ahead."

Friedrichs’ attorneys had conceded defeat in lower courts acknowledging that circuit and appeals court judges do not have the authority to overturn precedent established by the Supreme Court. Those concessions allowed the plaintiffs to expedite Friedrichs’ appearance before the high court. Friedrichs’ legal team said that the Roberts Court appeared ready to overturn coercive dues, pointing to its 5-4 decision in Harris v. Quinn, which overturned forced unionism among Illinois home health aides in 2014.

Oral arguments took place in January just one month before Scalia died in his sleep at a Texas ranch. Conservative justices pressed lawyers representing the state of California and the teachers union about whether teachers should be forced to "subsidize" groups that make claims on the public treasury. Union attorneys argued that dismantling Abood would lead to a "free rider" problem since teachers could benefit from collective bargaining without paying for representation.

"The union basically is making these teachers compelled riders for issues on which they strongly disagree," Justice Anthony Kennedy said. "Agency fees require that employees and teachers who disagree with those positions must nevertheless subsidize the union on those very points."

Union watchdogs say they will continue to fight coercive dues in court. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has five cases in various federal courts that threaten to overturn Abood. Foundation spokesman Patrick Semmens predicted that the issue will appear before the Supreme Court in the future.

"An evenly split court always seemed like the most likely outcome after the sudden passing of Justice Scalia," he said in a release. "Today’s order means Rebecca Friedrichs’ case probably won’t be the one to finally free public servants from being forced to fund the activities of union bosses as just to work for their own government, but the issue is not going away and could return to the High Court soon."

Judicial activists on both sides of the aisle pointed to the decision as evidence of the importance of filling Scalia’s vacancy.

Heins, the union leader, called on the Senate to give Obama nominee, D.C. Appeals Court Chief Judge Merrick Garland, a hearing. Carrie Severino, a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and chief counsel for the conservative non-profit Judicial Crisis Network, said Senate Republicans should "hold the line" on their pledge to block any appointees until the November election because Garland would tilt the balance of the court.

"The Court's 4-4 decision demonstrates just how much rides on the next justice confirmed to the Supreme Court," Severino said in a release. "If the Senate confirms Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, it will be creating a new liberal majority that will dominate the court's decisions for a generation. The Senate should hold the line on letting the people decide what kind of court they want."

Published under: Supreme Court , Unions