High Court Weighs Precedent on Public Employee Unions

January 21, 2014

by Jeremy Leaming

The U.S. Supreme Court in Harris v. Quinn may not overturn precedent, seriously disrupting public employee unions, but such a possibility was “at least on the table” during today’s oral argument in the case.

In an argument recap, SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston reported that “atmospherics” of today’s oral argument “suggested strongly that this case has very large potential.”

The case involves Illinois recognizing a single union for its home health care workers. Health care workers are not forced to join the union (in this case SEIU), but all members are required to pay fees for the union to engage in collective bargaining. A few state health care workers represented by an anti-union outfit called the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation are challenging that practice embodied in the National Labor Relations Act and supported by high court precedent.  

Defending precedent on public employee unions was U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., who Denniston reported, “talked as if he, too, perceived the case to be a severe test of public worker collective bargaining.”

Nearing end of oral argument, Verrilli urged the justices to uphold its 1977 precedent set in the case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That case has stood “for forty years, and is entirely consistent with the First Amendment jurisprudence regarding the government as employer,” he said.

Representing Illinois and the union, Paul M. Smith, partner at Jenner & Block and a member of the ACS Board of Directors, discussed implications of the case with NPR before oral argument.

If the high court were to upset precedent and decide, “You can’t have an exclusive representative union, that would be a stake in the heart of not just unions in the public sector but all unions,” Smith told NPR.

For more analysis of the case see the ACSblog series on Harris v. Quinn.