Tuesday, January 21, 2014
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Harris v. Quinn, the case testing whether fair-share fees for non-union in-home care providers in the Illinois Medicaid program violate the First Amendment. (Our argument preview is here.) The Court in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education previously upheld public-sector fair-share fees to support a union's collective bargaining activities in the interests of preventing free-riders on a union's activities and promoting workplace peace. But this case put Abood directly in the Court's cross-hairs, as the petitioners argued to overturn the decades-old case.
If today's arguments are any indication, that seems an unlikely result.
Still, it's not entirely clear what the Court will do with the case. For one thing, there was just a lot of confusion about it. For example, on the question whether the union's work here (in the state's Medicaid program) represented advocacy on a public matter (thus strengthening the non-members' claims), no clear position emerged. Here's an exchange between Justice Kagan and the attorney for the petitioners (the home-care workers):
Justice Kagan: But you're not objecting, I think, to the union as a whole. What you're objecting to is an individual employee having to support that activity. The scale is no different. It's an individual employee.
Mr. Messenger: Yes, it's an individual employee being forced to support that expressive activity. So the question becomes: What expressive activity are they being forced to support? And when you're speaking of changing an entire government program, for example, Medicaid rates across the board, that is a matter of public concern. That is a matter of lobbying or political --
Justice Kagan: But that's exactly what the individual employee in Justice Scalia's hypothetical is arguing for. He wants wage rates to be changed across the board. He knows they're not going to be changed just for him. He wants higher wage rates.
Mr. Messenger: But, again, under this Court's private--under the public conern test, an individual simply speaking to that usually does not rise to a matter of public concern.
Chief Justice Roberts jumped in during the respondents' argument to underscore the problem. He made a point that under the state's position one union's advocacy for increased Medicaid rates might be an issue of public concern (as in a teacher's union), but another union's advocacy for the same incrased Medicaid rates is a private employment issue (as here), suggesting that that can't be.
Justice Breyer quickly rescued the respondents and outlined the opposite position--"Collective bargaining with any employer, meat packers, hours, safety depends on hours, always can involve public interest questions"--arguing that the Court shouldn't be in the business of this kind of line-drawing.
The one to watch here may be Justice Kennedy. He suggested at one point that nearly all of this union's activities were public matters, but at a different point that the Court's jurisprudence provides (at least) a partial solution: non-members can be compelled to pay fair-share fees for those activities that might involve free-riding, but not for other activities for which they don't receive a benefit. (Justice Scalia piped in to remind us that under the Court's jurisprudence non-members can opt-out of fees for benefits that they don't enjoy.) The problem here may be sorting out which kind of benefit is which.
Justice Alito underscored this problem when he pressed the state on a hypothetical non-union teacher who has to pay a fair-share fee to support the union's advocacy of the tenure system. But the teacher disagrees with the union's position on this, so has to pay another organization an equal amount to represent his or her views--just to counteract the advocacy supported by his or her compelled fair-share fee. Justice Kennedy posed a similar hypo. The state responded that here the fair-share fee supports union activity that benefits all workers, but it's not clear that a majority bought it, or, if they did, that they weren't also thinking beyond the narrow facts of this case.
The case also involved several puzzles, both practical and jurisprudential, that seem to put the petitioners' positions at odds with common sense and doctrine. Here's Justice Sotomayor raising one with the petitioners:
Justice Sotomayor: Is there a problem for the State to say--the union, to organize has a certain amount of costs. So putting aside fair representation laws, could the State say, this is what we're going to pay police officers, 100 dollars, but we're going to pay union members 110 to reimburse them for the cost of negotiation. Would that be OK?
Mr. Messenger: Yes.
Here's Justice Kagan raising another:
Justice Kagan: Because here's the thing: That in the workplace we've given the government a very wide degree of latitude and there's much that the government can do. It can fire people. It can demote people for things that they say in the workplace, not for things that they say as a citizen . . . .
So you're saying, well, the government can punish somebody for saying something, but the government in the exact same position cannot compel somebody to say something they disagree with. And I want to know what's the basis for that distinction, which it seems to me is just as hard as -- as if you were answering under the petition clause.
There was also significant confusion about whether the state's flexibility in negotiating wages--and therefore why the union's participation is necessary. (If the wages are set--by the Medicaid program, for example--what benefit does the union bring?)
Justices Scalia and Alito both expressed some skepticism over the state's intent in requiring fair-share, Justice Alito suggesting that it was Governor Blagojevich's reward to the union for a huge campaign contribution.
In rebuttal, Justice Scalia pressed the petitioners about free-riding and what their position could do to unions; Justice Kagan pressed them about what their position would do to "thousands and thousands" of public contracts that include fair-share provisions. Justice Kagan earlier put a finer point on the case's significance and with the help of respondents' counsel told us just what's at stake:
Justice Kagan: So, Mr. Messeenger, even on the compulsory fees, I mean, what strikes me is that this is -- I'm just going to use the word here, it is a radical argument. It would radically restructure the way any workplaces across this country are -- are run.
And let me just put it to you this way and ask if you agree with this -- with this statement. Since 1948, since the Taft-Hartley Act, there has been a debate in every State across this country about whether to be a right-to-work State and people have disagreed. Some States say yes, some States say no. It raises considerable heat and passion and tension, as we recently saw in Wisconsin. And -- but, you know, these are public policy choices that States make.
And is it fair to say that what you're suggesting here, your argument, is essentially to say that for 65 years, people have been debating the wrong question when they've been debating that, because, in fact, a right-to-work law is constitutionally compelled?
Mr. Messenger: In the public sector, yes . . . .