Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed without decision a Ninth Circuit opinion holding that public-sector unions in California can require public workers to pay union fees. The case likely would have been overturned in a 5-4 decision, but for the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Friedrichs v. California Teacher’s Association (U.S. 2016).
The case involved a group of California public school teachers who sued the California Teachers Association, the National Education Association, and their local unions in 2013, challenging “opt out” procedures the unions maintain under state law.
Teachers who do not join the union must nonetheless pay fees toward the union’s expenses for bargaining, contract administration, and other activities. The union sends an annual notice of “non-chargeable” fees it cannot force non-members to pay. But non-members must affirmatively “opt out” of paying the fees or be subject to funding the union’s political expenditures.
During oral arguments in January, it appeared that a majority of the Court’s justices would side with the teachers, who claimed the state teachers’ union violates their free speech rights by compelling them to pay union dues. But Justice Scalia’s death left the Court in a 4-4 tie. Ultimately, the Court issued a non-precedential, one-sentence opinion, stating, “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”
A tie vote by the Supreme Court merely leaves a lower-court opinion intact, rather than settling a legal issue. Accordingly, the Court could take up the issue again at a later date.