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Challenge To Union Fees Deadlocks In Supreme Court


The U.S. Supreme Court has deadlocked again, this time in a case that poses a big threat to labor unions. The court announced the tie vote today without any further comment. This is likely to heighten the controversy over the Republican refusal to consider President Obama's nominee to the court. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The tie vote is the second since Justice Antonin Scalia died last month. It's certain to give further ammunition to Democrats seeking to break the GOP Senate blockade of President Obama's nominee to fill the vacant seat.

The deadlock came in a case brought by union opponents in California, where 325,000 teachers throughout the state are unionized across a thousand school districts. Just 9 percent of the teachers in those districts have chosen not to join the union. But because the union contract must, by law, cover them, too, they are required to pay an amount that covers the cost of negotiating the bread-and-butter benefits they reap from the contract - wages, leave policies, grievance procedures.

Non-members do not have to pay for union lobbying or political activities, but some of them went to court seeking to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision that upheld the fair share fees as a way to avoid non-members free riding on the union's benefits.

Backed by conservative groups, non-members now contend that the fees amount to an unconstitutional subsidy that violates their right of free speech and association. Conservative justices on the current court all but invited such a challenge in recent labor rulings. But that was before Scalia's death, and it appears there are no longer five votes in favor of reversing the 1977 precedent.

In the aftermath of Scalia's death, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared that there would be no hearing or vote on any Obama nominee until after the election. Since then, McConnell has also ruled out a vote until a new president is sworn in next year.

Not only will today's deadlock give Democrats ammunition to use in their claim that the GOP Senate blockade is hampering the work of the Supreme Court, but the tie vote is likely as well to energize the union members as well as union opponents in the upcoming national election.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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