The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington. Photo by DB King via Wikimedia Commons
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington. Photo by DB King via Wikimedia Commons

State teachers union officials hailed a Supreme Court 4-4 split Tuesday that denied a legal challenge from a veteran Orange County teacher on whether unions can collect dues from non-members for collective bargaining agreements.

The high court, which has a seat vacant since the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia, split evenly on the question raised by Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association on whether it was a First Amendment violation to compel non-members of unions to pay some dues that are restricted to labor agreements. The non-members must opt out each year of paying full dues, which cover lobbying and other political activities.

The Supreme Court, with no explanation attached to the decision, left intact a 1977 high-court ruling that allowed unions to keep collecting dues from all teachers for labor agreements. Normally, a 4-4 split would leave intact an appellate court district’s ruling, which would only apply in that part of the country, but the 1977 ruling related to this case applies nationally.

“Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a mandate that has been in effect for more than 40 years and affords America’s workers, including educators across California, the opportunity to come together to improve their working and student learning conditions,” said CTA President Eric Heins.

“This decision is a victory for educators and all public employees, but most importantly a victory for the millions of students of California and across the U.S.,” Heins said.

Heins criticized the legal challenge, arguing the high court “rejected a political ploy by the wealthy corporate special interests backing this case to make it harder for working families and the middle class to come together, speak up for each other and get ahead. The decision recognizes that stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights in the workplace is a step in the wrong direction.”

Rebecca Friedrich, who teaches in an elementary school in the Savanna School District in Anaheim, was one of nine educators in the lawsuit. She argued in an editorial published by CNN in January that she broke from the union when officials would not go along with her plan to take a pay cut to help other young teachers keep their jobs following the collapse of the economy during the Great Recession.

The Center for Individual Rights, which argued the suit before the nation’s highest court, announced it has requested a rehearing petition. A hearing usually requires five of the justices to back it, including one who joined in the majority decision, but it is unclear what happens in an even split.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris applauded the decision.

“Today’s ruling protects the right of public employees working in our schools, universities, hospitals and police agencies in California and across the nation to negotiate fair wages and benefits, without restricting any individual employee’s freedom of speech,” Harris said. “While this decision is a victory, we must keep fighting to protect the ability of working families to make a living wage and pursue the American dream.”

UC Irvine law school professor Catherine Fisk said the litigation was unusual because it was meant to overturn well-established precedent.

“Usually the Supreme Court takes cases for the purpose of resolving conflict in lower courts,” Fisk told City News Service. “Friedrich is unusual because the law is settled nationwide. It’s been settled since the middle 1970s at least and there was no circuit split. This was a case delivered to the court for the purpose of giving it a vehicle to overrule settled precedent.”

Backers of the litigation have been on a “sustained litigation campaign to try to overturn a rule of law they don’t like and they’ve been filing these lawsuits for 50 years,” Fisk added. “They thought this was the one that would get rid of fair-share fees.”

Another test case is in the pipeline to strike down collective bargaining, Fisk said, “and that’s been constitutional for 80-plus years.”

“If they get a fifth (conservative) justice, they’ll pick up where they left off,” Fisk said. “If Democrats win (the presidency), they’ll try to get it changed through state legislatures rather than through litigation.”

If a Democrat wins the White House, Fisk doubts Republicans will continue to resist filling the open Supreme Court seat because there will be too much political pressure on the party to confirm a justice. It’s more likely that Republicans in a lame-duck Congress will approve President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, if Democrats win the presidency in November, she said.

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.