The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13 could have far-reaching consequences on several pending cases important to working people.
Most notably, the sudden vacancy on the high court looks likely to put an end to a serious challenge to fair-share fee collection brought by a group of anti-union California teachers in January.
The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, threatened to make all public employees in the U.S. – including roughly 30,000 IBEW members – right-to-work. After oral arguments on Jan. 11, most legal observers predicted the court would rule 5-4 against unions thanks to particularly pointed questioning from Scalia himself.
The court is now likely split 4-4 on the Friedrichs case, rendering it unable to overturn decades of precedent that have long held that unions could compel fair share fees from non-members who benefit from the union’s collective bargaining and grievance adjudication services.
Ironically, the anti-union lawyers bear some responsibility for their predicament. In their attempt to fast-track the case to the Supreme Court, the attorneys pursued the risky legal strategy of arguing against themselves in lower courts so that they could speed up the appeals process.
In the event of a tie, the Supreme Court simply affirms the lower court’s ruling, which in this case was a verdict in favor of the teachers’ union rendered by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in November 2014.
Chief Justice John Roberts retains the right to hold the case over to be re-argued once a new justice has been nominated and confirmed, but he has not yet indicated how he plans to proceed. At present, Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, have vowed that they will not allow a replacement nominated by President Obama through the confirmation process during his last year in office, potentially delaying any significant court action until 2017.
Obama has promised he will name a successor to Scalia, however, and the battle is setting up to shape the politics of much of the next year.
But while the court’s gridlock works in labor’s favor on the Friedrichs case, that is not the situation on every issue before the remaining eight justices.
On Feb. 9, the court issued a temporary stay on implementation of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a victory for the IBEW and the 29 states and dozens of industry groups also party to a lawsuit against the EPA.
The delay of the June 2016 deadline for states to submit initial carbon reduction plans to the EPA was put on hold by the court’s conservative majority until the matter is decided by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The stay appeared to observers to indicate an unease among the court’s conservative majority with the president’s plan, which could have benefited the IBEW and others suing for the regulations to be overturned.
With the D.C. Circuit expected to rule in the fall, a tie vote on the Supreme Court could make the lower court’s opinion the final say for now.
“All of this uncertainty just makes this election cycle even more important,” said IBEW International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “If anyone thinks Friedrichs was the last challenge to unions that will come before the Supreme Court in the coming years, they’re sorely mistaken.
“The makeup of the nation’s highest court is extremely important,” he said, “and it’s up to us to make sure we elect men and women who will put allies of working people on the bench.”