Tuesday, January 12, 2016
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Ass'n, the case testing whether a state's public-sector union fair-share requirement violates the First Amendment.
Answer: Almost certainly yes.
Few cases are predictable as this one, given the Court's lead-ups in Harris and Knox (both sharply criticizing Abood, the 40-year-old case upholding fair-share requirements against a First Amendment challenge). And few oral arguments foretell the Court's and the dissent's analyses and split so clearly as yesterday's argument.
The conservative justices, including Kennedy, have made up their minds against fair share (and in favor of overruling Abood). The progressives have made up their minds in favor of fair share (and keeping Abood on the books). Both sides rehearsed the arguments that we'll see when the opinion comes out later this year.
All this made the oral arguments seem unnecessary. And maybe they were. After all, those opposing fair-share didn't seem at all troubled by the absence of a factual record in this case--even though some amici briefed significant practical labor-relations problems that arose without fair share. Instead, those opposing fair share seemed perfectly willing to rely on their own intuition about how public-sector labor relations work.
The facts don't really matter, so why should the legal arguments, when everybody's minds are made up, anyway?
Some of the early discussion focused on the extent of fair-share opponents' First Amendment claim: does it apply only to public-sector unions, or also to private-sector unions? Michael Carvin, attorney for the fair-share opponents, was clear: it only applies to public-sector unions. That's because collective bargaining for public-sector unions inevitably involves public issues--so a fair-share requirement compels non-union-members to pay for public advocacy (with which they disagree). (Private-sector collective bargaining, in contrast, involves only private employment issues.) Moreover, Carvin said that it's not always so easy to sort out what union speech goes to collective bargaining issues, and what goes to other public advocacy--a problem administering Abood that goes to its stare decisis staying power (see below).
And that leads to Carvin's next point, a clever twist on the concern about free-riders: fair-share requirements don't serve the interest of avoiding free-riders (as conventional wisdom and Abood would have it); instead, fair-share requirements let the union free ride on non-members' fair-share contributions. Carvin turned the traditional free-rider concern on its head.
And the conservatives, including Justice Kennedy, accepted all this. (Chief Justice Roberts even added at one point that if unions are so popular, the traditional concern about free riders is "insignificant.") Indeed, Justice Kennedy stated the opponents' case as clearly (and certainly as concisely) as anyone yesterday:
But it's almost axiomatic. When you are dealing with a governmental agency, many critical points are matters of public concern. And is it not true that many teachers are -- strongly, strongly disagree with the union position on teacher tenure, on merit pay, on merit promotion, on classroom size?
And you -- the term is free rider. The union basically is making these teachers compelled riders for issues on which they strongly disagree.
Many teachers think that they are devoted to the future of America, to the future of our young people, and that the union is equally devoted to that but that the union is absolutely wrong in some of its positions. And agency fees require, as I understand it -- correct me if I'm wrong -- agency fees require that employees and teachers who disagree with those positions must nevertheless subsidize the union on those very points.
The progressives pushed back with stare decisis: shouldn't the Court give some weight to Abood? Carvin said that overruling Abood would actually better square the jurisprudence. But that didn't sit well with Justice Kagan:
So really what your argument comes down to is two very recent cases, which is Harris and Knox. And there you might say that Harris and Knox gave indications that the Court was not friendly to Abood. But those were two extremely recent cases, and they were both cases that actually were decided within the Abood framework. . . .
So taking two extremely recent cases, which admittedly expressed some frustration with Abood, but also specifically decided not to overrule Abood, I mean, just seems like it's nothing of the kind that we usually say when we usually say that a precedent has to be overturned because it's come into conflict with an entire body of case law.
Some on the left also wondered whether striking Abood also mean striking mandatory bar fees and mandatory student fees (previously upheld by the Court), and whether it would disrupt reliance interests (in the form of the thousands of public-sector union contracts that rely on it).
Look for all these points in the opinion, when it comes down. And look for the conventional 5-4, conservative-progressive split. If the result in this case wasn't clear going into arguments yesterday (though it was), then arguments yesterday certainly clarified it.
(The second question in the case--whether non-chargeable expenses need to follow an opt-in rule, instead of an opt-out rule, got very little attention. This issue, too, is all but decided, by the same split: the Court will almost certainly require opt-in.)