The U.S. Supreme Court was equally divided 4-to-4 on a case that asked the Justices whether to overturn long-established law that allows a public sector union to charge an agency or service fee to those employees who choose not to join the union. With the Court equally split, the lower court’s decision is automatically affirmed, and public sector unions can continue to charge agency fees to employees who do not join the union.

Overturning Abood Appeared A Real Possibility

In the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court ruled that unions could charge an agency fee to public employees who chose not to join the union to cover the union’s costs to negotiate a contract that covers all the public employees. For over thirty years, that has been settled law. In 2014, however, the Court suggested it might be willing to overturn Abood, questioning its analysis on several grounds, including whether a mandatory agency fee violates a non-union member’s First Amendment right to free speech.

That apparent willingness to overturn Abood set up the First Amendment challenge to public union agency fees in this term’s case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. At the oral argument in Friedrichs in January, the Court’s more conservative Justices appeared ready to overrule Abood. Even the four more liberal Justices appeared to concede that the First Amendment argument may be tough to uphold but instead focused on the importance of not overturning prior rulings unless there is a compelling reason to do so. The long-standing Abood precedent appeared in jeopardy.

Justice Scalia’s Death Creates Stalemate

Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death in February left the Court at a 4-to-4 stalemate in Friedrichs. With the even split, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling applying Abood stands.

Opponents of unions and the Abood decision will have to wait for another case to work its way through the judicial system to raise the issue for consideration by a future Court. Of course, depending on who fills Justice Scalia’s vacancy, the majority of Justices may no longer have an appetite to reconsider Abood. We’ll all have to wait and see. In the meantime, public sector unions may continue to charge agency fees to those employees not paying union dues.