Antonin Scalia’s loss from Supreme Court hands teachers union a victory

By Michael Doyle

A short-handed Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 Tuesday over a high-stakes challenge to fees charged by the California Teachers Association and other unions, frustrating conservatives who had placed their hopes on the case.

Absent the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, the eight-member court issued an unsigned, one-sentence opinion that upheld a lower court’s decision siding with unions that charge fees to non-members.

Though it arrived without rhetorical flourish, or even written explanation, the Supreme Court’s decision in the case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association represented the most dramatic consequence to date of how Scalia’s absence has reshaped the high court.

“Such an outcome only emphasizes the importance of a court that can operate with a full complement of nine justices that can resolve important legal questions from lower courts once and for all,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center.

“While we argued that the ruling of the Court below should be affirmed, as it now has been, today’s divided ruling from the Supreme Court establishes no national precedent while leaving open the possibility that the issue will come before the Court once again.”

Constitutional Accountability Center President Elizabeth Wydra

With its full membership of nine members, the court would have been able to resolve the hard-fought union fee case on a 5-4 vote. The tenor of the oral argument held in January, when Scalia was still alive, seemed to portend an eventual ruling against the union in what might have been a landmark decision.

“Is it okay to force someone to contribute to a cause he does believe in?” Scalia asked during the oral argument.

The attorney challenging the California Teachers Association said no.

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Scalia said, before raising other points that suggested he was tilting against the union.

The court’s so-called per curiam opinion upholds a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which ruled in favor of the mandatory union fees.

“This decision recognizes that stripping public employees of their voices in the workplace is not what our country needs,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelesen Garcia said.

Rebecca Friedrichs is an elementary school teacher in Orange County. Along with San Luis Obispo County teacher Irene Zavala, Harlan Elrich, a math teacher at Sanger High School near Fresno, and others, Friedrichs opposes mandatory fees charged by a teachers association to which they do not belong.

“Every year, (the teachers) are required to provide significant support to a group that advocates an ideological viewpoint which they oppose and do not wish to subsidize,” attorney Michael A. Carvin told the court.

The Supreme Court, in the 1977 case involving Michigan teachers called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, ruled that fees charged by public-sector unions are consistent with the First Amendment because the nonmembers aren’t paying for political action but for the union’s contract bargaining services.

California and more than 20 other states permit public-sector unions to charge nonmembers mandatory fees that support collective bargaining work.