The US Supreme Court issued a split ruling Tuesday that ended up handing a victory to public unions in the US — an outcome that likely never would have happened if Justice Antonin Scalia had not died suddenly last month.
That case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, raised the question of whether public-sector workers should be forced to pay “agency fees” to the unions that negotiate their employment contracts.
A ruling against the association could have drained public-sector unions of cash from any worker who didn’t want to pay, in a major victory for conservatives trying to crush collective bargaining.
However, by issuing a 4-4 decision split decision, the Supreme Court ensured that a lower appeals court decision in favour of the union will stay in place. The National Education Association praised the decision, which allows public-sector unions to collect fees adding up to millions of dollars a year, according to Reuters.
“The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a political ploy to silence public employees like teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, higher education faculty and other educators to work together to shape their profession,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, according to Reuters.
The vote likely would have been 5-4 against the union if Scalia were still on the bench.
Four of the five conservative-leaning justices — including Scalia and swing voter Anthony Kennedy — seemed hostile to the union’s argument in January when the court heard the case, as The New York Times pointed out. Scalia’s vote didn’t count, though, because he died before the issuance of the opinion.
According to SCOTUSblog, votes Scalia had cast that have not been publicly decided are void.
The Obama administration had asked the high court not to overturn the lower-court ruling siding with the unions. That means that this case could be the “biggest boon for the administration in terms of cases that have already been heard,” George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley told Business Insider in an email (emphasis ours).
Here are other significant cases that could be affected by Scalia’s death:
Fisher v. University of Texas. In December, the high court heard a case that revolves around whether it’s legal for colleges to consider applicants’ race to ensure a diverse student body. This case is highly unusual, because Justice Elena Kagan had already recused herself, so only seven justices will vote on it.
Before Scalia’s death, the best outcome affirmative-action proponents could have hoped for was a tie. In the event of a tie, the lower-court decision stands and no Supreme Court precedent is set for future cases. If Kennedy sides with the liberals, they may have a decisive victory.
The United States v. Texas. In April, the Supreme Court is going to hear a challenge to US President Barack Obama’s plan to allow millions of undocumented workers to keep working legally in the US. A federal appeals court in New Orleans has already struck down that plan, so the possibility of a tie would not be good for the Obama administration because that opinion would stand.
“The president’s immigration order has been struck down and I have little confidence that there are more than four votes to reverse,” Carter Phillips, who’s argued 73 cases before the Supreme Court, told Business Insider, “but that one is a little harder to predict until we see how the briefing and argument play out.”
Whole Women’s Health v. Cole. This month, the Supreme Court heard its first big abortion case since 2007 — and it did do so without Scalia, who almost certainly would have sided with abortion opponents. The case challenges a Texas law that would put such strict limits on abortion clinics that it would leave only 10 — down from 40 — in all of Texas, as The New York Times’ Adam Liptak noted.
When the high court took up the case, Liptak wrote that it had the “potential to affect millions of women and to revise the constitutional principles governing abortion rights.”
Of course Liptak made that comment before Scalia’s death — and before it was possible for there to be a tie. A federal appeals court in New Orleans has upheld most of the law, so a tie would leave that decision in place but would not create precedent for future appeals courts to rule on.
The high court may end up taking the case again in the event of a tie, and if Obama is able to put someone on the bench, a liberal justice could have the decisive vote.
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