The Supreme Court has yet to announce its decision in Janus v AFSCME, the case that will decide the fate of agency fees — fees paid to unions by non-members to support collective bargaining activities. So while you’re waiting (and studying up on the history of unions using our recently released slide deck), here are three things you need to know about the Court’s decision-making process:
- There is a range of possible rulings.
The Supreme Court’s decision is not going to be a simple “win/lose.” While Janus will, in fact, either “win” or “lose” his case, the Court’s written interpretation is what will shape future law and policy. And this written interpretation could be very narrow, quite broad, or fall somewhere in the middle. A very narrow finding, for example, could be to affirm the lower court’s ruling. Under this ruling, nothing would change. On the other end of the spectrum, the Court could go beyond the agency fee question presented in the case and find more broadly that exclusive representation is also unconstitutional.
- In its decision, the Court will likely reference a long history of precedents on agency fees and free speech.
The Court has been ruling on the issue of agency fees for decades. Analysts and commentators most frequently cite the 1977 Abood case, which endorsed the current agency-fee arrangement. But there are others cases that could be just as important. For example, the 1968 Pickering v Board of Education case dealt with a teacher who was fired after writing a letter to a local newspaper that was critical of some of his school board’s financial decisions. The Court found in Pickering’s favor that his right to freedom of speech was violated when he was fired for writing this letter. In making its decision, the Court had to balance the interests of Pickering, who was a citizen speaking on matters of public concern, and those of the government (in the case, the school board) as an employer seeking to provide efficient public services. This balancing of interests has become known as the Pickering test.
The Court could apply the Pickering test to Illinois’ law, which would require them to balance the interests of Janus speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern with those of the government as an employer. The Court could find either that the state’s interests as an employer outweigh Janus’ free speech interest (meaning that Janus would lose) or that Janus is speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern and that this free speech interest outweighs the state’s interests as his employer (meaning that Janus would win).
Another case the Court may reference is the 1991 Lenhert v Ferris Faculty Association case, which defined the activities for which unions can compel agency fees from non-members. These activities must 1) be “germane” to collective bargaining, 2) be justified by the government’s interest in maintaining labor peace, and 3) not add to the burdening of free speech.
The Court could decide that agency fees are legal, however it could revisit the definition of the expenses for which unions can charge non-members.
- The Court will avoid a constitutional question whenever possible.
Canons of construction are principles that provide guidance to the courts as they interpret statutes. One of these principles is to “first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which [a constitutional] question may be avoided.” In other words, if there is a reasonable interpretation of the statute that does not conflict with the Constitution, the Court will adopt this interpretation.
This could be the case for Janus: The Court could find that there is an equally reasonable interpretation of Illinois’ law that does not raise a First Amendment free speech issue. The Court would have to adopt this interpretation, and Janus would lose.
While the Court’s decision is expected in the coming days, there’s no way to predict what it will be. So in the meantime, check out our deck on the history of unions and the implications of the Janus decision here.