By: Patrick Kain


Last week the United States Supreme Court, exemplifying the Court’s shift to the left following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, issued a key ruling in favor of organized labor unions.[1]  The decision represents a shift from the traditionally conservative and anti-union Court, to a much more liberal approach to union values.[2]  Additionally, the 4 to 4 deadlocking decision characterizes the inability of the eight Justice Court to issue adequate rulings while there remains a vacancy, and the sweeping impact that the views of the newly appointed Justice will have on the country in the very near future.

Under California law, a union is allowed to become the exclusive bargaining representative for public school employees in a bargaining unit such as a public school when a majority of the employees wish to be represented by a union.[3]  Once a union is established, it may create an “agency-shop” arrangement whereby all employees must agree to either join the union or pay a fair share service fee.[4]  The fee is generally equivalent to the amount of the union dues.[5]  The Plaintiffs in this case are public school employees who do not wish to be represented by a union and object to paying the fee.[6]  They argue that a requirement that they make a financial contribution in support of a union violates their rights to free speech and association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.[7]

The 9th Circuit relied on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, where the Court upheld the constitutional validity of compelling employees to support a particular collective bargaining representative and rejected the notion that the only funds from nonunion members that a union constitutionally could use for political or ideological causes were those funds that the nonunion members affirmatively consented to pay.[8]  Additionally, in Mitchell v. Los Angeles Unified School District, the 9th Circuit, following U.S. Supreme Court precedent in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, held that the First Amendment did not require an “apt in” procedure for nonunion members to pay fees equal to the full amount of union dues under an agency shop agreement.[9]  Relying on this precedent, the 9th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of the union.[10]

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and, based on a 4 to 4 split decision, affirmed the ruling of the 9th Circuit in a one-sentence opinion stating “the judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”[11]  This decision has vast implications as it exemplifies the problems facing the United States Supreme Court in the wake of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.  Recently, the Court has split 5 to 4 in about a quarter of all cases heard.  This decision demonstrates the inefficiencies that coincide with a Court made up of only eight justices.  Additionally, this decision illustrates the change in the balance of the Justices towards a much more leftward leaning Supreme Court, and the significance that the appointment of the new Justice to serve on the Court will have on the future of the country.

The immediate implications of this ruling are a major victory for organized labor and unions. Unions will be able to lawfully force nonunion members to pay fees to the union and the ruling will encourage more union participation in the future. While the ruling of a divided court will not be strong legal precedent, the ruling will boost the power of unions and further their influence going forward.

[1] Friedrichs v. Cal. Teachers Ass’n, No. 14-915, 2016 U.S. LEXIS 2264 (Mar. 29, 2016)

[2] Id.

[3] Friedrichs v. Cal. Teachers Ass’n, No. SACV 13-676-JLS (CWx), 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 188995 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 5, 2013).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 2.

[7] Id.

[8] 431 U.S. 209, 215 (1977).

[9] 963 F.2d 258, 262 (9th Cir. 1992).

[10] Id.

[11] Friedrichs v. Cal. Teachers Ass’n, No. 14-915, 2016 U.S. LEXIS 2264 (Mar. 29, 2016)


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