After a Holiday break, the Supreme Court returned to a full schedule of arguments and other activity in January. The crucial oral argument before the Court this month in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, as well as several cases that the Court agreed to review later this year, again show that on a variety of important issues, the Court has enormous influence but is closely divided. With the president elected in November likely to select as many as four new Supreme Court justices beginning as early as next year, the person we elect as president will be critical. That’s why Election Day 2016 will be Judgment Day for the Court and our rights and liberties.
Friedrichs is the latest battle in what the New York Times has called the “war on workers” and unions being waged by Justice Alito and other conservatives on the Court. A primary target of that war has been a decision almost 40 years ago in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that case the Court determined that although workers cannot be forced to join a union or contribute to its political activities, since that would violate their First Amendment rights, they can be required to help pay for the costs of collective bargaining and related activities from which they benefit even if they are not union members. That solution to what would otherwise be a “free rider” problem is crucial to the ability of unions to effectively represent the interests of workers. Even though a unanimous Supreme Court recognized the principle of Abood as recently as 2009, subsequent 5-4 decisions written by Justice Alito have criticized that ruling and effectively invited attempts to overturn it. That is exactly what the plaintiffs in Friedrichs, a small group of California teachers, are attempting to do, claiming they should not have to join or pay “fair share” costs to the state teachers union and that Abood should be overturned.
The justices’ comments at the oral argument made clear that the conservative 5-4 majority remains hostile to unions and Abood, and may well be prepared to overrule it this year. (As usual, Justice Thomas did not speak at the argument, but his negative views in this area have been made clear in past opinions). Particularly troubling were some comments by Justice Kennedy, who is often the “swing” vote on the Court, but in this case maintained that “free riders” are really “compelled riders” who, he claimed, are forced to support unions on “issues on which they strongly disagree.” Regardless of the merits of that claim, on which many have disagreed, it strongly suggests that there may now be five votes to overturn Abood, with disastrous consequences for unions and workers.
It is impossible, of course, to predict the precise outcome of a Supreme Court case based on the oral argument, and the Court could issue a decision that does not completely overrule Abood. The Court could send the case back to a lower court for specific fact-finding on issues like the impact of eliminating “free rider” payments on unions, as was suggested at one point in the argument, or could limit its holding to the specific case in California. Particularly if the Court chooses one of those alternatives, the question of who will replace older justices like Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Scalia when they retire will be critical. That is why the election in November of our next president, who will nominate such replacements, is crucial for the Court and workers’ rights. Even an outright overruling of Abood could be softened or revisited, but only if a progressive president is elected and selects more progressives Justices for the Court.
During January, the Court also agreed to review several important cases on other subjects this year. The case that has generated the most controversy is United States v. Texas, where lower courts have put on hold the president’s executive orders on immigration that would defer deportation enforcement against millions of undocumented immigrants who have children who are citizens or legal permanent residents and would be able to apply for jobs and stay in the U.S. for three years. Twenty-six states led by Texas filed the challenge, and the huge partisan divide on the question almost guarantees that it will be an election issue this fall. The most extreme Justices on the Court (Scalia, Alito and Thomas) have voted against virtually every significant Obama initiative that has come before the Court, and the Court’s decision to add a question for the parties to address - whether the Obama order is consistent with the Constitution’s language that the president should “take care” that federal laws be “faithfully executed” - suggests deep skepticism by some of the justices. The decision itself could have a huge impact not only on this specific issue, but also on the ability of a future progressive president to take other executive action in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. However this case is decided, there is also little question that these issues will return to the Court in 2017 or later, and the views of the president who will appoint future justices will be crucial to the results.
The Court also decided in January to review several other important cases this year. In one, the Court has been asked to decide whether a state constitution can more strictly separate church and state than the increasingly conservative Supreme Court has and can prohibit any direct state financial aid to religious institutions. Thirty-five states have such constitutional provisions, and the Court is very divided on such religion issues, which are very likely to come up in the future as well. And in another big business vs. consumers case, the Court will consider what must be proven to prosecute someone for illegally using inside company information for stock or other trading. This issue has divided lower courts, one of which has adopted a narrow interpretation that has dealt a significant setback to the efforts of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to crack down on insider trading in the $3 trillion hedge fund industry. The Court is likely to be divided on this issue as well.
The Court’s decisions in both these cases later this year will be important in and of themselves. But they are also very unlikely to be the last word on the significant big business, consumer, and religion issues they raise. The fact that these and other crucial issues will be decided by this divided Court in the future, and the fact that four justices on the current Court will be over 80 in the next president’s first term, is what makes the identity of the president who will appoint future justices so important. Statements this month by both Democratic and Republican candidates show that, even as they also discuss other issues, they clearly recognize the importance of the election for the future direction of the Court. In short, Election Day 2016 truly is Judgment Day for the Supreme Court and for all of our rights and liberties.