Monday, February 26, 2018
There were no surprises today at oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, the case testing whether a state law that permits a public-sector collective-bargaining agreement to require non-union-members to pay a "fair share" fee violates the First Amendment. The justices seemed to divide along predictable (and conventional political) lines, given their votes in other recent cases. The only one we haven't heard from on this issue--and didn't hear anything today--is Justice Gorsuch. If previous positions hold, as expected, the case will turn on his vote.
The case asks whether a state can require non-union members to pay the union for its collective-bargaining work (but not its outside political work) in a public-sector agency shop. The Court held in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) that it could. In particular, the Court said that the state's interests in avoiding free-riders in the agency shop and promoting and protecting labor peace justified any intrusion into First Amendment rights.
Janus tests whether the Court should overrule Abood and strike mandatory public-sector fair-share fees.
Recall that the issue has come to the Court, directly or indirectly, three times in recent years. In the first two cases, Knox v. SEIU and Harris v. Quinn, the Court sent strong signals that a majority thought fair share fees violated the First Amendment. Then, in 2016, the Court deadlocked 4-4 on the issue in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Justice Scalia participated in oral arguments in Friedrichs--and indicated his position against fair share--but passed away before the Court issued its ruling.
Arguments today largely rehearsed the points made in Friedrichs and that have by now become familiar: on the one side, mandatory fair share represents compelled speech on public issues that a non-union-member (like Janus) may disagree with; on the other side, the interests in Abood justify any mild intrusion into First Amendment rights represented by a fee (and not actual compelled speech). Lurking just below the surface is the political wrangling over public-sector unions and the reality that a ruling against fair share will strike a serious blow to them.
If prior positions hold among the eight justices who participated in Friedrichs, as expected, the case will then turn on Justice Gorsuch. He revealed no cards today, though, staying quiet throughout the arguments.