A lawsuit challenging compulsory union dues for teachers is a step closer to the Supreme Court after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed for expedited judgment in the case. The rapid decision, while technically a defeat for the plaintiffs, allows for the case to potentially reach the Supreme Court in 2015.
California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, supported by the non-profit Center for Individual Rights (CIR), is suing the California Teachers Association (CTA), arguing that a state law requiring her to pay a monthly fee to the group in order to work as a teacher violates her First Amendment free speech rights. Her case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, has the potential to gravely weaken public sector unions around the country by making right-to-work laws the norm nationwide.
Currently, 26 states have laws that allow public employees to be forced to make payments, called “agency fees,” to their union even if they personally refuse to become a member. Legally, these agency fees are only supposed to help cover the cost of collective bargaining, and must not be directed towards a union’s political goals. However, Friedrichs argues that in practical terms this is impossible, partly because she says it is impossible to divorce modern collective bargaining from broader political concerns. She says that several collective bargaining positions taken by the CTA, such as their opposition to merit pay and fierce defense of teacher tenure and other job security provisions, are political positions that prioritize the interests of certain teachers over the wider interests of taxpayers. As a result, Friedrichs says that agency fees are essentially forcing her to fund political speech she objects to.
Currently, judicial precedent is against Friedrichs. In 1979’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court explicitly affirmed the validity of closed-shop laws. As a result, Friedrichs’s case has been swiftly shot down by both federal district court and the Ninth Circuit, but according to CIR these outcomes have been intended. CIR has pushed for summary judgments at lower court levels in the hopes of reaching the Supreme Court as quickly as possible. By finishing the Ninth Circuit case before the end of the year, CIR can attempt to have the case heard in 2015 with a ruling by 2016, rather than having to wait until 2017 or even later.
CIR’s haste is based on its belief that the current situation is ideal for a possible change in Supreme Court precedent. In June’s Harris v. Quinn decision, the justices ruled 5-4 that home caregivers in Illinois could not be forced to join or pay dues towards a public union. Justice Samuel Alito authored the majority opinion, and in it he declared his belief that Abood had been wrongly decided. However, the Court’s ruling in Harris was a limited one, as it only applied to independent contractors who received some of their pay from the state. With this case, CIR hopes the Court will seize the chance to follow through and abolish all compulsory union dues for government employees.
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