SCOTUS Deadlock Keeps Public Employee Union Agency Fees Alive

The Supreme Court issued no ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Tuesday, due to a 4-4 split caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. A group of California teachers had sought to prevent the union from charging them “agency fees,” claiming these fees violated their First Amendment rights. The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes has the full story:

The case involves only public-employee unions — not those of private workers — but those unions are the strongest segment of an organized-labor movement that is increasingly tied to the Democratic Party. At the same time, Republican governors across the nation have become embroiled in high-profile battles with the public-employee unions in their states.

Conservative groups directly asked the court to overturn the 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which favored the unions. That ruling said states could allow public-em­ployee unions to collect fees from nonmembers to cover the costs of workplace negotiations but not to cover the union’s political activities. More than 20 states allow the fees. During oral arguments, it appeared that the conservative groups would get their wish. Scalia had actually been the best hope for unions beyond the four liberal justices. But his questions seemed to make clear that he sided with the challengers.

When the court is evenly split on a case, it affirms the decision of the appeals court that considered the case. In this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said it was bound by the Abood decision and turned down the challenge.

At SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston explains how the plaintiffs might proceed from here:

Shortly after Justice Scalia died, the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal advocacy group involved in the Friedrichs case, announced that it would ask the Justices to schedule a rehearing on the case if it were to split four to four. The Center said at the time that it expected such a request would put the case off until the Court’s new Term, which is slated to begin on October 3. (UPDATE: Lawyers involved said Tuesday that a rehearing petition will, in fact, be filed.)

Under the Court’s rules, a rehearing request in the Friedrichs case would have to be filed within twenty-five days following Tuesday’s ruling. It would require the votes of five Justices to order such a reconsideration, and one of the five must have been one who had joined in the decision. It is unclear how that rule would work when the judgment had been reached by an evenly divided Court. … If the Court were to decide not to rehear the Friedrichs case, another option for confronting the same agency fee question would be in a different case that had worked its way through lower courts, and reached the Justices after there was a full bench.