Supreme Court deadlocks in key labor case

By Brian Mahoney and Josh Gerstein

The shorthanded Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it has deadlocked in a closely watched labor case that had the potential to deal a severe blow to public-sector unions.

In a one-sentence opinion, the court revealed that the justices split 4-4, allowing an appeals court ruling in favor of the California Teachers Association to stand. The dispute involved the rights of public-sector unions to charge nonmembers fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining — something they will now continue to be able to do in states that permit it.

Unions already had begun to prepare for an adverse decision after oral arguments in January. During those arguments, several justices, including Antonin Scalia, showed a willingness to hold that the mandatory fees violated the First Amendment rights of teachers who disagreed with their union. The court appeared on the verge of ruling that collective bargaining itself was an inherently political activity that nonmembers could not be forced to subsidize.

While the identities of the justices on each side were not revealed in the ruling, the outcome suggests that as the result of Scalia’s unexpected death last month, government-employee unions narrowly escaped a ruling that had the potential to cripple their finances and reduce their impact on the political scene.

“The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a political ploy to silence public employees like teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, higher education faculty and other educators to work together to shape their profession,” said National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, whose union represents about 3 million teachers.

The result could also have an immediate effect on the standoff between President Barack Obama and Senate Republican leaders over filling Scalia’s vacancy. The case is the first high-profile one since Scalia’s death in which the court announced it was equally divided, which is certain to fuel the arguments of Democrats and the White House that the GOP stance is causing some gridlock in the legal system.

“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,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. “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.”

But some Republicans continue to say the court can function just fine with a panel of eight, according to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“When you consider that two judges have said that we’ll be able to operate with eight people, and when you consider the fact that [Associate Justice Elena] Kagan has had to recuse herself on a third of the cases before the Supreme Court because she was solicitor general, I think it proves that the court is going to be able to operate,” he told POLITICO after a town hall meeting Tuesday in Iowa.

Grassley also said that moving on Obama’s nominee — D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland — would not have affected the Friedrichs decision.

“It would’ve been very good to have a 5-4 ruling on that case, and if Scalia had been there, it probably would’ve been a 5-4 ruling” against the unions, Grassley said. “But then … you have a situation where even if Scalia had died and we decided to move ahead with Garland, he wouldn’t have been involved and you would’ve had the same decision.”

The White House seized on the decision to show why a full court was important to the rule of law. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the absence of a ninth justice would leave unsettled the divisive questions posed in Friedrichs and other close cases.

“We essentially have laws that are applied in different ways depending on which community you live in,” he said. “It is not what our founders intended, and certainly isn’t consistent with the notion of federalism.”

The White House and its allies have stressed that ties because of an eight-member court create the potential for different legal rules in different parts of the country, although no such difference seems imminent on the union fees issue, which remains governed by a 1977 Supreme Court ruling allowing such fees.

In addition, the fact that the court announced a 4-4 result in a closely followed, politically charged case may indicate that the justices are not inclined to schedule re-arguments in any of the cases where they may divide equally. That creates the potential of a pile-up of such cases between now and June, giving Democrats more opportunity to argue that the dangers of an eight-member court are real and not remote.

On the other hand, the fact that Scalia’s presence on the court could well have led to a precedent-setting ruling against unions could add to the GOP’s resolve not to allow onto the bench a liberal Obama nominee who likely would have swung the case toward a more significant victory for labor, rather than just a close call they managed to survive.

The Center for Individual Rights, the nonprofit law firm that brought the union fees case to the Supreme Court, said it will submit a petition for rehearing in light of the outcome.

“With the death of Justice Scalia, this outcome was not unexpected,” Center President Terry Pell said. “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 high court’s first 4-4 result after Scalia’s death came last week in a lower-profile case about the application of a law against gender discrimination to spouses of individuals taking out loans.