by Charlotte Garden, associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, litigation director of the Korematsu Center for Law & Equality, and faculty advisor to the ACS student chapter at Seattle Law. Follow her on Twitter @CharlotteGarden.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association by equally divided vote. This result—a win for public sector unions—has been anticipated by Court watchers since Justice Scalia’s death made a tie vote among the remaining eight justices nearly inevitable. Still, a tie vote did not require the Court to affirm the judgment below—instead, the Court could have held the case over for reargument once it was back to the full compliment. That the Court did not go that route could reflect the Justices’ own recognition of the political reality that Senate Republicans’ intransigence makes confirmation of a ninth justice before the presidential election in November unlikely. More important, though, Friedrichs is a sign of things to come—the 4-4 affirmances that are all but certain to arrive later this Term will cause far more disruption and uncertainty.
What Does Affirmance in Friedrichs Mean for Public Sector Unions?
As I previously described for ACSblog, January’s argument in Friedrichs left public sector unions—as well as states that have chosen to manage their workforces through collective bargaining with unions supported by agency fees—little reason for hope. The Court seemed poised to hold that public sector employees have a First Amendment right not to contribute financially to the unions that represent them, even as they benefit from that representation. A ruling against the union and state defendants would have reversed a nearly 40-year-old Supreme Court precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, and handed a long-sought victory to the right.
Thus, Tuesday’s decision was a reversal of fortunes for public sector unions and employers. It means that in the nearly half of states in which public sector agency fees are required or authorized, unions will not be left scrambling to cover the gap that would have inevitably resulted when represented workers made the economically rational decision to free ride on their co-workers. And the timing of that reversal—which would have left unions to cover their shortfall using dues paid by members on a voluntary basis—is also critically important. Unions would have had to divert member dues that could otherwise have gone to election-related advocacy (among other things). And that reallocation would have dampened union members’ ability to engage in political speech through their unions during the upcoming presidential election season—a fact not lost on the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael Carvin.