Final update 11:44 a.m.
The most important labor union controversy to reach the Supreme Court in years sputtered to an end on Tuesday, with a four-to-four split, no explanation, and nothing settled definitely. The one-sentence result in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will leave intact, but on an uncertain legal foundation, a system of “agency fees” for non-union teachers in California — with the legal doubts for public workers’ unions across the nation probably lingering until a ninth Justice joins the Court at some point in the future.
The practical effect was to leave undisturbed a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had simply found itself bound by a prior Supreme Court precedent upholding such fees against constitutional challenge. The Ninth Circuit had before it a case specifically filed as a test of that precedent, and only the Supreme Court could revisit that prior ruling, binding on all lower courts.
The Court had heard the Friedrichs case on January 11 and, from all appearances then, it seemed to be on its way toward a five-to-four decision to declare that it would be unconstitutional for unions representing government employees to charge fees to workers they represent but who are not among its members, even when the fees cover the costs of normal union bargaining over working conditions, not lobbying or outright political advocacy.
But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month left the Court to either find a way still to decide the case, or to end it with an even split. If it had actually tried since Scalia’s death to find a way around a split, that effort clearly came up short. The result set no precedent, and thus left the constitutional issue dangling.
Shortly after Justice Scalia died, the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal advocacy group involved in the Friedrichs case, announced that it would ask the Justices to schedule a rehearing on the case if it were to split four to four. The Center said at the time that it expected such a request would put the case off until the Court’s new Term, which is slated to begin on October 3. (UPDATE: Lawyers involved said Tuesday that a rehearing petition will, in fact, be filed.)
Under the Court’s rules, a rehearing request in the Friedrichs case would have to be filed within twenty-five days following Tuesday’s ruling. It would require the votes of five Justices to order such a reconsideration, and one of the five must have been one who had joined in the decision. It is unclear how that rule would work when the judgment had been reached by an evenly divided Court.
Tuesday’s result in this key case marked the second time that the Court, with its membership reduced by one, had divided evenly in a case it had reviewed. A week ago, it did so in a case about spouses’ responsibility for each others’ debts (Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore).
Although President Obama has nominated Judge Merrick B. Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to succeed Justice Scalia, Senate Republican leaders have vowed to take no formal action on that nomination until after the presidential election on November 8. It thus is unclear at this point when a ninth Justice might join the Court, and help it avoid further four-to-four splits in deciding cases.
If the GOP position does not change, a new Justice might be approved in a post-election Senate session, but otherwise would probably not be approved in time to join the Court before next March.
If the Court were to decide not to rehear the Friedrichs case, another option for confronting the same agency fee question would be in a different case that had worked its way through lower courts, and reached the Justices after there was a full bench.
[Disclosure: Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to this blog in various capacities, is among the counsel on an amicus brief by the American Federation of Teachers and American Association of University Professors in support of the respondents in this case. The author of this post, however, is not affiliated with the firm.]