Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Scalia’s death likely saves teachers union in dues case

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death affects many cases, but none more controversial than one from California.

During oral arguments on a case dealing with dues that California’s public employees must pay to unions even if they don’t belong, Scalia left no doubt that he would vote to overturn the law.

With Sacramento’s Anthony Kennedy likely to vote with Scalia and other conservative justices, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The California Teachers Association, which was the putative defendant in the case, and other unions were already making adjustment plans on that assumption.

The practical effect for the unions of an adverse decision would have been a reduction of their dues income and perhaps a diminution of their dominance of California’s state and local politics.

Scalia’s death from natural causes on a hunting trip in Texas, however, changes everything about the case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, both legally and politically.

President Barack Obama said he plans to appoint a successor, but the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said the GOP majority will leave the vacancy to the next president.

With the eight remaining justices tied 4-4 on Friedrichs, therefore, the federal appeals court ruling on the case – upholding the union dues law – would remain intact.

So CTA and other unions will continue to receive what they call “fair-share fees” indefinitely. And their critics will continue to complain that the law violates the free-speech rights of their nonmembers.

It should remove any reluctance by union leaders to spend heavily on this year’s elections, most notably for a ballot measure that would extend a temporary income tax surcharge on high-income taxpayers that’s due to expire soon.

Unions are also expected to spend heavily on legislative races to help Democrats regain the “supermajorities” in both legislative houses and block the expansion of a business-friendly bloc of Democratic legislators that has thwarted liberal legislation in recent sessions.

What ultimately happens to Friedrichs and other cases pending in the sharply divided court, meanwhile, depends on who fills Scalia’s seat, and California could be a player in that game as well.

The blogosphere immediately began speculating whether California Attorney General Kamala Harris or Gov. Jerry Brown might be potential Obama nominees.

Harris is running for the Senate this year, and while she could legally continue to run while a Supreme Court nominee, she would not likely accept a nomination, given McConnell’s declaration about not acting this year.

Brown, meanwhile, is scarcely a year younger than Scalia and presidents prefer to choose younger justices in hopes of having long-term impacts.

Who ultimately fills the vacancy will either bolster the court’s narrow conservative majority or bring liberals back to dominance. And that adds another element to this year’s presidential contest. 

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