Sanger High teacher on losing side of U.S. Supreme Court decision

The flag outside the Supreme Court building was flown at half staff in honor of Justice Antonin Scalia after he died last month. On Tuesday, the impact of that death was clear as the court, on a 4-4 tie, upheld a teachers union in a case that conservative groups had hoped would go the other way.
The flag outside the Supreme Court building was flown at half staff in honor of Justice Antonin Scalia after he died last month. On Tuesday, the impact of that death was clear as the court, on a 4-4 tie, upheld a teachers union in a case that conservative groups had hoped would go the other way. J. Scott Applewhite, AP

A shorthanded U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 Tuesday over a high-stakes challenge to fees charged by the California Teachers Association and other unions, frustrating conservatives who had placed their hopes on the case.

Absent the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, the eight-member court issued an unsigned, one-sentence opinion that upheld a lower court’s decision siding with unions that charge fees to nonmembers.

The decision means public-sector unions representing 7.2 million workers nationwide can keep collecting nonmember fees that support activities such as collective bargaining. Union members will keep paying higher dues that also cover explicitly political expenses.

“This allows us to continue to be strong advocates,” said Eric C. Heins, president of the California Teachers Association.

Underscoring the high stakes, Cornell Law School professor Angela Cornell noted that “disallowing agency fees would have substantially weakened an already hollowed labor movement.”

The National Federation of Independent Business countered that the anticlimactic decision “effectively upholds a system rigged against taxpayers.”

Rebecca Friedrichs is an elementary school teacher in Orange County. Along with San Luis Obispo County teacher Irene Zavala, Harlan Elrich, a math teacher at Sanger High School, and others, Friedrichs opposes mandatory fees charged by a teachers association to which they do not belong.

Though it arrived without rhetorical flourish or even written explanation, the Supreme Court’s decision in the case, called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, also represented the most dramatic consequence to date of Scalia’s absence from the high court.

Scalia died a little more than a month after the Jan. 11 oral argument in the union case, in which he appeared likely to play a crucial role. Even some union supporters, while happy for victory Tuesday, lamented how it happened.

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

With its full membership of nine members, the court would have been able to resolve the hard-fought union fee case on a 5-4 vote. The tenor of the oral argument in January seemed to portend an eventual ruling against the union in what would have been a landmark decision.

“Is it OK to force someone to contribute to a cause he DOES believe in?” Scalia had asked during the oral argument.

The attorney challenging the California Teachers Association said no.

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Scalia said, before raising other points that suggested he was tilting against the union.

The court’s opinion Tuesday did not identify which justices were on which side, but they are evenly divided between four Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees.

The court’s so-called per curiam opinion upholds a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the mandatory union fees. However, it does not set a national precedent affecting states outside of the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco.

“This decision recognizes that stripping public employees of their voices in the workplace is not what our country needs,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelesen Garcia said.

Conservative attorneys brought the case on behalf of some California teachers, including Elrich.

“Every year, (the teachers) are required to provide significant support to a group that advocates an ideological viewpoint which they oppose and do not wish to subsidize,” attorney Michael A. Carvin told the court.

In 2013, the California Teachers Association collected $173.9 million in what attorneys characterized as dues. California teachers say their individual fees can exceed $1,000 a year.

The Supreme Court, in a 1977 case involving Michigan teachers called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, ruled that fees charged by public-sector unions are consistent with the First Amendment because the nonmembers aren’t paying for political action but for the union’s contract-bargaining services.

California and more than 20 other states permit public-sector unions to charge nonmembers mandatory fees that support collective-bargaining work.

Conservatives have long chafed under the Abood ruling, and the CTA lawsuit was conceived as a strategic move by attorney Terry Pell and the Center for Individual Rights, with the specific intent to get the 1977 ruling overturned.

Some Supreme Court justices, in turn, have all but invited a challenge to the Abood ruling. In a 2014 decision, Justice Samuel Alito called the Abood reasoning “troubling” and “questionable on several grounds.” Four other justices, including Scalia, joined him in that opinion.

“There is little doubt that if Justice Antonin Scalia had lived, today’s decision would have been a huge 5 to 4 victory for the rights of public-sector employees nationwide who chose not to join a union,” said Curt Levey, executive director of the FreedomWorks Foundation.