Today the US Supreme Court issued a 4-4 split keeping in place a lower court decision that preserves public sector union fees.
Conservatives bent on crippling the power of public employee unions lost their best opportunity in years Tuesday when the Supreme Court deadlocked over a challenge to the fees those unions collect from non-members.
Rather than seeking to reschedule the case for their next term, the justices simply announced they were tied 4-4 -- a verdict which leaves intact the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upholding the fee collections.
That was a major victory for the unions and the court's four liberal justices following Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month. During oral argument in January, it had appeared almost certain that the court would strike down the requirement in 23 states that teachers and government workers contribute to the cost of collective bargaining, even if they disagree with their unions' demands.
The result would have been the demise of a nearly 40-year-old Supreme Court precedent that allows unions to impose such requirements on non-members. It would have made it harder for unions representing teachers, police and firefighters, and other government workers to maintain their power by affecting their pocketbooks.
Instead, the judicial deadlock allows the California Teachers Association to keep collecting the fees, but it does not have nationwide impact. The 9th Circuit standard applies only to states within its jurisdiction, including Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington as well as California.
The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, signified a major threat to public employee unions that represent nearly 36% of government workers — far more than the plummeting average for unions overall. Only 11% of Americans belonged to unions in 2014.
In other words, Scalia's passing is the only thing that saved public sector unions from being all but dismantled by SCOTUS. Scalia certainly would have been the fifth vote against the unions, and there almost certainly would have been a national, broad ruling that would have affected public sector unions in all 50 states.
For now, at least, public sector unions will survive. How long that's the case, well, we'll see if Merrick Garland fills Scalia's seat...or if it is filled at all.