Samuel Alito

Twice in the last three years, Justice Samuel Alito has written opinions dealing defeats to public unions. Above, Alito at the Reagan library in Simi Valley. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)

By David G. Savage
January 31, 2015

Seeing an opening to weaken public-sector unions, a conservative group is asking the Supreme Court to strike down laws in California, Illinois and about 20 other states that require teachers and other government employees to pay union fees, even if they are personally opposed.

Suing on behalf of an Orange County elementary school teacher, attorney Michael Carvin called the case “a challenge to the largest regime of state-compelled speech for public employees in the nation,” according to his appeal filed at the high court last week.

Carvin, a former Reagan administration attorney, also launched the pending lawsuit against President Obama’s healthcare law, which could unravel the insurance subsidies for about 5 million Americans who receive coverage through the federally run exchange. That case will be heard March 4.
I am not a member of the union, and I’m opposed to forced fees and forced unionism. – Rebecca Friedrichs, plaintiff

His latest case targets the California Teachers Assn. and the National Education Assn. Plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs and several other California teachers say they object to paying about $650 a year to the union.

“I am not a member of the union, and I’m opposed to forced fees and forced unionism,” she said in an interview.

Her case could pose a major threat to public-sector unions whose clout grew in the 1970s after the high court upheld laws requiring all employees who benefit from collective bargaining to contribute to the union. Although teachers and other public workers may refuse to pay dues used to support a union’s political activities, they can still be forced to pay a so-called “fair share” fee that covers operation costs.

But twice in the last three years, Justice Samuel Alito has written opinions dealing defeats to public unions and hinting the court may be prepared to strike down those forced fees. The “bedrock principle” of the 1st Amendment, Alito said last year, is that “no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

Alito spoke for a 5-4 majority last year that said Illinois may not force state-funded home healthcare aides to pay union fees. In 2012, he rebuked a service employees union in California for collecting a special election-year fee from worker Dianne Knox and others who objected.

Conservative activists took note. “When we read Alito’s opinion in Knox, we saw it as an invitation to bring the 1st Amendment back to the Supreme Court,” said Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal advocacy group. His group funded the Friedrichs suit in federal court in California, fully expecting to lose there. A federal judge and the 9th Circuit ruled for the CTA and rejected the challenge.

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