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On Big Supreme Court Case, the Key Voice Is Silent

Neil Gorsuch asks no questions during arguments on public unions
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 26, 2018 1:14 PM CST

(Newser) – The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in one of the biggest cases of the term, one that could prove devastating to public-sector unions. The issue revolves around an employee for the state of Illinois who objects to having $45 a month taken out of his paycheck to support the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, explains SCOTUSblog. Mark Janus doesn't belong to the union and doesn't think it's fair he has to pay those dues. If his argument prevails, it could wipe out a vital source of funding tor public unions. Details and developments:

  • The key vote: In this case, all eyes are on Neil Gorsuch, not Anthony Kennedy. Why? This same issue came before the court two years ago and seemed certain to end in a 5-4 defeat for the unions—until Antonin Scalia died, resulting in a 4-4 deadlock instead. Gorsuch is the only newcomer since that 4-4 result. A problem for readers of tea leaves: On Monday, he asked no questions during arguments, reports the AP.

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  • The current law: Back in 1977, the court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that non-union workers can be required to pay such dues because, even though they aren't union members, they still benefit from collective bargaining and such, explains NPR. However, their money can't be used toward the union's political activities. Monday's case could overturn the 1977 decision.
  • One prediction: Barring a "shocking pro-union" stance from Gorsuch, the court will likely rule for Janus and ring in "a new, weaker era for the unions that represent teachers and other public-sector employees," writes Sam Baker at Axios.
  • Two justices: Conservatives hoping to deal a setback to unions seemingly have nothing to fear from Kennedy. On Monday, he was downright "strident" in his criticism, per Politico. "What we're talking about here is a captive audience [being] compelled to subsidize a private party to express its view publicly," he said. Sonia Sotomayor, on the other hand, complained at one point, "You're basically arguing to do away with unions."
  • Two views: Dueling opinion pieces at the Nation (a ruling against the unions "would turn First Amendment law on its head") and from the Wall Street Journal editorial board ("Correcting Abood’s 40-year-old mistake is long overdue") make their cases.
  • The backers: Janus is backed in his fight by deep pockets on the right, including the Koch Brothers and the Bradley Foundation, reports the Guardian. In fact, the case "illustrates the cohesiveness with which conservative philanthropists have taken on the unions in recent decades," per the New York Times.
  • Also at stake: A ruling for Janus would hurt unions financially and politically. But the Washington Post sees an "under the radar" effect, as well. The case "could affect an important state government obligation: paying post-employment benefits other than pensions—primarily health-care coverage—to retired public workers." That is, with weaker unions, states might be able to cut benefits or ask workers to pay more to their health plans.
(Read more US Supreme Court stories.)

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