Supreme Court

  • July 17, 2014

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Eighty-three percent of American “voters believe police should get a warrant before searching personal information on someone’s cell phone,” Microsoft General Counsel Brand Smith notes in a post on Digital Constitution.

    The survey conducted by the research firm, Anzalone Liszt Grove, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Riley v. California, also reveals that 86 percent of respondents “believe police should have to follow the same legal requirements for obtaining personal information in the cloud as they do for personal information stored on paper.” In Riley, the high court found that police need warrants to search mobile devices of people they arrest.

    Smith says that while the Riley decision can be viewed as a “historic first step,” it only addresses “one of many questions that the growth of technology is posing for our privacy laws. We’ve raised another unresolved question in a case in federal court in New York in which we’re challenging a search warrant seeking customer communications stored in our data center in Ireland.”

    He continued that Microsoft believes it is a “problem for governments to use a warrant to reach across international borders and search a person’s email without respecting local privacy laws.” Smith then cites the survey that says a majority of Americans agree.

    Seventy-nine percent of those polled believe the “federal government should have to respect local privacy laws when searching through people’s personal information like their email accounts.” Moreover, the survey found 56 percent of respondents are “worried” that if the federal government demands “information in other countries without going through their governments, then other countries will follow suit and force companies to turn over Americans’ private information.”

    Smith concludes that the polling, all of which is available here, “suggests” Americans understand “what’s at stake for technology and the future of privacy.”

  • July 11, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Catherine Fisk, Chancellor’s Professor of Law, University of California Irvine School of Law

    As I have argued elsewhere, in striking down an Illinois law authorizing the state to require unionized home care workers to pay their fair share of the cost of union representation, the Supreme Court in Harris v. Quinn disregarded its longstanding rule that it does not decide questions of state law and failed to reconcile the result with the First Amendment rights of government workers or the Court’s other cases on when compulsory fees constitute compelled speech. 

    First, under Illinois law, government-paid and government-regulated home health-care workers are state employees. Justice Alito’s majority opinion in Harris disregarded state law when it invented a vague new category of non-“full-fledged” government employees who have greater First Amendment rights than other workers to refuse to pay the costs of union representation.

    Second, if under Garcetti v. Ceballos, and United States Civil Service Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers, government employees have no First Amendment rights to speak on the job on matters of public concern or to engage in political activity on their own time, why do some government employees have a First Amendment right to refuse to pay for services that their union is legally required to provide them?

    Third, the Court failed to explain why fair share fees differ from compulsory payment of lawyers’ bar dues, which the Court approved in Keller v. California State Bar.  To quote Keller, substituting only “home care workers” for “legal profession,” Illinois has an “interest in regulating [home health-care workers] and improving the quality of [home health-care] services.”

    Yet there is a way forward. As I argue with Ben Sachs, where unions are unable to require objecting workers to pay fees – whether it’s in right-to-work states or in work situations that fall under Harris v. Quinn – we should get rid of the rule of exclusive representation. Non-fee payers wouldn’t be subject to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, they wouldn’t have to interact with their employer through a collective agent, and they wouldn’t be required to pay anything to a union they didn’t vote for. Unions, for their part, would be required to represent only those workers who actually want representation.  Another possibility is that governments wishing to bargain with a single representative on behalf of their workers could agree to pay the cost of the representational services on behalf of all workers. No worker would then be compelled to pay anything to a union and the dissenting workers’ First Amendment rights would not be violated.

  • July 1, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service Law, George Washington University Law School

    Why would you pay for something if you can get it for free?  The obvious answer is that you wouldn’t.  And after this week’s decision in Harris v. Quinn (No. 11-681), if you work as a homecare provider in Illinois, you can get all the pay raises and benefits increases that the union negotiates without having to pay a penny to support those efforts.  According to the 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the First Amendment guarantees that outcome.  Here’s how he got there, and where he went off the proper constitutional track.

    In about half the states, employees who work for state agencies (including teachers) have the right to join unions, and those unions have the right to bargain with the state or its agencies over terms and conditions of work. Depending on both the state and the job, the union may be able to negotiate over pay and benefits, as well as working conditions. Many such contracts have grievances procedures in which the union represents workers in an effort to resolve disputes with the employer.  Negotiating and implementing contracts cost money, and to pay for those services, states authorize unions, where a majority of the workforce agrees to establish one, to charge all employees for those services directly related to collective bargaining.  In exchange, the union is under a legal obligation to fairly represent all individuals covered by the collective bargaining agreement. The right to organize for public employees is governed by state law, and there is another system for private sector employees that generally operates in the same way, albeit with some significant differences that were not relevant in Harris.

    The workers in Harris were paid by the state, but worked for Medicaid recipients who needed a variety of home care services. Under Illinois law, the recipients choose the person who would provide those services (many of whom are family members) and direct and control his or her assignments. There were many other distinctions between those workers and the typical state employee, but Illinois decided that it would be willing to allow those workers to form a union to bargain with the state over wages and benefits, if a majority of those who performed such services voted for a union, which would mean the mandatory payment of monthly dues to support its work.

  • July 1, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Nicole G. Berner, Associate General Counsel, Service Employees International Union

    In a narrowly divided opinion, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court in Harris v. Quinn ruled against homecare workers who provide crucial care to people with disabilities and the elderly and to the consumers who rely upon that care to live independently and with dignity in their homes. Harris v. Quinn was brought by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an extreme anti-worker group funded by the likes of the Koch brothers and the Walton family. The case is part of a broader concerted attack on working people and women in this country. Although the June 30 ruling is a setback for homecare workers, our members are more determined than ever to ensure quality care for people with disabilities and seniors, all of whom want nothing more than to enable this population to live independently and with dignity at home.

    The petitioners asked the Court to disregard one of the bedrock principles of Supreme Court jurisprudence (stare decisis) and to overrule Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U. S. 209 (1977), a case relied on and reaffirmed in myriad cases since it was decided nearly four decades ago. In Abood, the Court held that a government entity may, consistent with the First Amendment, require public service employees to pay a fair share of the cost that a union incurs negotiating on their behalf for better terms of employment. While the Court declined the invitation to overrule Abood – a decision that would have radically restructured public sector labor relations in this country – the majority instead ruled that Abood’s protections do not extend to home care workers in the State of Illinois.

    The Court’s narrow ruling leaves intact the right of most public service workers such as teachers, fire fighters, and police officers to join together in a union and to negotiate for fair share arrangements. The ruling also leaves intact the rights of the Illinois homecare workers to form a union and to bargain collectively through an exclusive bargaining representative. But the conservative five-justice majority carved out an exception to Abood for the tens of thousands of homecare workers in Illinois, thereby weakening the ability of this majority female workforce to advocate collectively for improved working conditions and quality care.

  • June 30, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Alex J. Luchenitser, Associate Legal Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Two things stand out to me about this morning’s 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) grants “religious” for-profit corporations an exemption from regulations requiring businesses to include coverage for contraceptives in their health insurance plans:

    First, the majority opinion attempts to hold itself out as a limited, cautious one. A closer look, however, shows that it is no such thing.

    Second, even though Justice Kennedy joined the five-justice majority opinion, his separate concurring opinion indicates that he disagrees with the majority in important respects. In such circumstances, a Justice normally joins a colleague’s opinion only in part, at most. Justice Kennedy’s imprudent joinder of the majority’s entire opinion will likely lead to mischief and confusion in the lower courts.

    Applicability to for-profit corporations

    The majority’s analysis begins with the conclusion that RFRA protects the religious “beliefs” of for-profit corporations, even though it is quite doubtful that the senators and representatives who voted for RFRA expected it to extend that far.

    The majority attempts to “limit” its ruling on this issue by stating that it is addressing only closely-held for-profit corporations here, and that it is not deciding whether RFRA also covers publicly-traded corporations.  But a reading of the majority’s reasoning on this issue — including its explanation that the word “person,” as used in RFRA, is defined as covering all corporations by a law called “the Dictionary Act” — leaves no doubt that the same result will ensue in the case of publicly-traded entities.

    The majority’s real attempt to answer concerns about extending the coverage of RFRA to all for-profit entities is to say: “don’t worry about it,” it’s unlikely that a publicly-traded corporation will attempt to impose religious requirements on its employers because it probably won’t be able to agree internally on any particular religious belief. This should not be of comfort to employees.

    Perhaps smaller, minority religions will not be able to impose their religious views on employees through publicly-traded corporations. But there is no reason to be confident that the religious views held by the majority of persons wealthy enough to own stock, at least in a particular industry or field, won’t give rise to RFRA claims by large, publicly-traded entities. In other words, employees need only worry about being subjected to majority religious views, of the better-off.