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Teachers' Union Fee Case to Be Appealed to U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court will likely soon have a fresh opportunity to consider overruling a key precedent on service fees for workers who object to joining the teachers' unions or other public-employee labor organizations.

In a case involving a group of California teachers who object to paying agency fees to their local teachers' union, a federal appeals court this week issued an order that allows the objectors to appeal to the high court.

Lawyers for the nonunion teachers had asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, to expedite a ruling against them so they could be on their way to the Supreme Court. The teachers said only the Supreme Court justices can grant the relief they need, because only the justices could overrule the court's 1977 precedent in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which authorized public-sector unions to charge agency fees to objectors for the costs of collective bargaining.

In its June 30 decision in Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court stopped short of overruling Abood when it held that a group of Medicaid home-health workers were really not government employees and could not be forced to pay agency fees to a union representing the majority of such workers in Illinois. 

Writing for a 5-4 majority in Harris, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. devoted some 12 pages of his opinion to undermining Abood, but concluded it wasn't necessary to overrule the 1977 decision in the Illinois case. (Some court watchers speculated that Alito may have started out with a majority to overrule Abood, but that sometime during the internal deliberations in the case he lost a vote for going that far.)

In the California case, known as Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a group of 10 nonunion teachers from several districts are challenging that state's law authorizing teachers' unions to charge agency fees to nonmembers.

The teachers lost in a federal district court, and their appeal was pending in the 9th Circuit when the Harris decision came down. Their lawyers quickly filed a motion asking the appeals court to expedite a ruling against them.

"It is [the objecting teachers'] intention to seek a decision of the Supreme Court that overturns Abood," the motion said.

The defendant California Teachers Association and several of its locals filed briefs in the 9th Circuit objecting to the expedited treatment. They said there as an additional issue to be considered in the case involving the system under which objecting teachers may opt out of the union. 

However, after some procedural skirmishing by both sides, the 9th Circuit on Nov. 18 issued an order the objecting teachers wanted—that controlling precedent required that lower courts rule against them, permitting them to take their case to the Supreme Court.

"Today's order means that the district court judgment in favor of the defendant unions is affirmed as a matter of law on the basis of existing Supreme Court precedent," said the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington group that is helping to represent the objecting teachers. "The plaintiffs will now appeal that judgment to the Supreme Court, where they will ask the court to overrule its precedent that allows states to mandate union dues."

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