U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Public Sector Unions

Court overturns decades-old precedent in one of last decisions of term

In its last week of term, the U.S. Supreme Court released a firestorm of highly anticipated and controversial opinions. Among them came Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees on June 27, and with it, the court overturned a 1977 ruling, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The decision allowed labor unions that represent public employees to charge “fair share” fees to non-members for the costs of negotiating contracts that apply to all public employees.

Plaintiff Mark Janus fi led suit to challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’ state law authorizing agency fees in public-sector unions, but the district court dismissed the claim, ruling the Abood precedent precluded it. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. Janus argued that allowing such compulsory fees violates his First Amendment rights to free speech because the issues public-sector labor unions negotiate, such as wages and benefits, are inherently political since they affect public policy.

“Forcing free and independent in-dividuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable raises serious First Amendment concerns,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the 5-4 majority. “That includes compelling a person to subsidize the speech of other private speakers.”

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