Organized labor seemed headed for a defeat in a major Supreme Court case after arguments in January, but Antonin Scalia's death has resulted instead in a 4-4 deadlock—a result that amounts to a "big victory to the unions," reports the New York Times. The case involved California teachers who object to being required to pay dues even though they've opted not to join the state's teachers union. Scalia was expected to provide the fifth vote against the unions over the collection of these "agency fees," but the 4-4 tie means that an appeals court ruling upholding the practice will remain in place, reports the AP. It's "the most important case of the year for unions," notes the Washington Post.
Because it's a tie instead of a ruling one way or the other, the case will set no legal precedent. As Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog puts it, that means these agency fees can remain in place, though on shaky grounds, "with the legal doubts for public workers’ unions across the nation probably lingering until a ninth Justice joins the Court at some point in the future." Still, a 5-4 loss would have immediately weakened public unions and affected millions of government workers around the US, notes the Times. Unions argue that the fees help them negotiate better terms for all employees, union or not.