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Without Scalia, Supreme Court splits on union fees case

The Supreme Court split 4-4 on a case on whether unions can collect fees from government employees who choose not to join. The outcome was an unlikely win for unions and a stark example of the impact of Justice Antonin Scalia's death. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the new dynamics of the divided court.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We turn now to the Supreme Court, where today's 4-4 split was an unlikely win for labor unions, and a stark example of the impact of Justice Scalia's death.

    For more on today's highly anticipated decision, and the new dynamics of the divided court, we are joined by Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

    So, welcome back, Marcia.

  • MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Actually, two interesting developments at the court today, but let's start with that labor union case first.

    Remind us of the — what the arguments were on each side. And this took place when Justice Scalia was still alive.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    That's correct.

    The arguments were heard earlier this year. The case was brought by a group of California public schoolteachers who were not members of the public employee union in California. They claimed that having to pay what are called agency fees or fair share fees to the union that actually is required by law to represent all of the public school teachers violated the teachers' First Amendment speech and association rights.

    During the oral argument, Judy, it appeared that the court was going to rule for the teachers. It looked like the decision might well have been 5-4, with the five conservative justices in the majority and needing Justice Scalia to make that majority.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, today, we learned that the court is divided. The eight justices on the court are divided, one-line statement.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    A very common way they handle 4-4 ties or splits. It's called a per curiam decision, an unsigned decision in which the court simply states that the decision below is affirmed by an equally divided court. We don't know who voted how.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, this means what?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    It means that agency shop fees are constitutional in this country under a 40-year-old Supreme Court decision.

    It doesn't mean the end of the issue. There are other challenges pending in the lower courts, so it may be a temporary victory for the union.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, Marcia, can we presume, as long as there is not a ninth justice who is confirmed and sitting on the court, that there could very well be more 4-4, evenly split decisions?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    I think so, Judy.

    We never know for sure, but I think the second thing that happened today is an example of how the court is struggling to resolve some of these very difficult high-profile issues it has before it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And this is — we learned that the court is asking for another briefing on this Affordable Care Act contraceptive case that it had heard recently.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    That's right.

    This was a challenge brought by a number of religious nonprofits that claim that notifying the government that they object to contraceptive health insurance for their employees, because it requires them to notify the government of who their insurer is, makes them complicit in providing the insurance, a violation of their religious beliefs.

    The court's order today really is — kind of reflects the arguments we heard last week, in which you had several justices, the chief justice, Justices Kennedy and Alito, sort of accepting the charge that the government is hijacking the religious nonprofit's insurance plans, and the more liberal justices accepting the government's argument, there is no hijacking, there's probably no accommodation that would be acceptable to these nonprofits.

    So, the court has asked both sides to suggest alternatives that wouldn't involve the religious nonprofits in making any kind of notification to the government, but still providing the insurance through the insurance plan.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, quickly, it looks like they're looking for some middle ground.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    It does.

    The court does in the like to divide 4-4, because it doesn't resolve the question. And in this case, it would leave the law uneven throughout the country.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The eight-member court working its way through these cases.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Definitely.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Marcia Coyle, thank you.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    My pleasure, Judy.

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