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U.S. Supreme Court

Freeloading, First Amendment discussed in SCOTUS case on mandatory public-union dues

Posted Jan 22, 2014 11:06 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court considered on Tuesday whether forcing government employees to pay “fair-share” union dues violates their First Amendment rights.

The case could be decided on narrow grounds, but the justices focused on the bigger issue of whether to overrule a 1977 decision permitting the mandatory dues, report the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and SCOTUSblog.

The 1977 decision is Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The precedent says public employees may be required to pay mandatory dues to unions as long as the money is not used for political purposes.

SCOTUSblog described the arguments this way: “The mood of the court’s more liberal members was one of obvious trepidation, and that of its more conservative members—except for Justice [Antonin] Scalia—was of apparent eagerness to reach anew the core constitutionality of compulsory union support among public workers.”

Scalia appeared sympathetic to the union representing Illinois home-care workers, though he previously joined a majority opinion that appeared to invite a challenge to Abood. “What our cases say,” Scalia said, is “you can be compelled not to be a free rider.” Public employees can be compelled to pay for "bargaining that benefits you as well as everybody else,” he said.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared sympathetic to the First Amendment argument. “I’m talking about whether or not a union can take money from an employee who objects to the union’s position on fundamental political grounds,” he said. The lawyer for the union suggested that Kennedy’s argument could lead to the demise of public-sector unions.

The case could be decided on another issue: whether the home-health care workers were properly classified as state employees.

The case is Harris v. Quinn.

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