From Justice Kagan’s observation that a decision in favor of the plaintiff could affect millions of public sector workers to Justice Alito’s surprise at seeing a union brief include an argument that the Constitution originally did not grant public employees free speech rights, the U.S. Supreme Court was full of impassioned discourse during Monday’s oral arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, et al. Despite the many insightful questions and comments directed to the four attorneys arguing before the Court, the voice of the one person each attorney was trying to convince was never heard.
Justice Gorsuch is likely the deciding voice at the conference table in Janus. The same issue – whether requiring public sector employees to pay union fees (“fair share” or “agency” fees) unconstitutionally compels speech – was previously before the Court in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. However, the Court was unable to enter a precedential decision because of a four-four split on the issue after Justice Scalia’s death. Now the question of whether to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which allowed such fees in 1977, is again directly before a full Court.
A decision in favor of overturning Abood would mean that public sector employees could choose to stop paying agency fees. From the employee’s perspective, the ability to withhold those payments is a constitutional right because funding collective bargaining is inherently political speech. From the union’s perspective, fees that only fund collective bargaining over employment matters such as wages and benefits are analogous to an employee individually addressing those things to his/her government employer, which the Court has held is not constitutionally protected free speech.
A few of the Justices noted the consequences such a holding could have on existing collective bargaining agreements as a reason to uphold Abood, based on the principle of reliance on the former decision as a reason to uphold that precedent. In response, plaintiff’s counsel emphasized the predominance of this practice as a reason for reversing Abood, if it does not meet constitutional muster.
Justice Gorsuch has not been shy about participating in oral arguments during his tenure on the Supreme Court Bench. Thus, Monday’s silence in this important case was likely a tactical decision to listen, think, and analyze instead of asking questions that might stoke additional speculation about his views.
Because of that silence, we are left with interesting tidbits about Justice Kennedy’s argument preparation habits (apparently perusing a relevant 1961 concurrence the night before argument) and thoughts of whether a modern framework would change the result of Marbury v. Madison (Justice Breyer’s skepticism of applying a “modern framework” in this case led to his wondering if similar attempts would go back to the source of judicial review) but with little insight into the possible content of a majority or plurality opinion.
Husch Blackwell’s Labor and Employment team is monitoring the case and will provide you with a prompt analyze of the decision in Janus once it is released. Please contact the Labor and Employment team with any questions.