SCOTUS swats down public sector unions

posted at 11:01 am on June 23, 2012 by Jazz Shaw

I realize that everyone is waiting with worms on their tongues for the big SCOTUS decision on Obamacare, but the highest court has quite a bit of other business on their docket as well. One of those items was resolved this week when the Supremes handed down a 7-2 decision in Knox vs. SEIU. The case revolved around a complaint against the SEIU in California for taking extra “fees” out of the paychecks of workers to fund political campaigns against two ballot measure.

The U.S. Supreme Court sharply criticized public-sector unions for using money from nonmembers to fund special political campaigns, stepping into the intense political debate about such unions and signaling that new constitutional limits may be coming…

“This aggressive use of power by the SEIU to collect fees from nonmembers is indefensible,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., speaking for the court’s majority. “When a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union … may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent.”

On the specifics of the particular losses suffered by Knox and the other plaintiffs, we’re not talking about a lot of money here. In fact, the SEIU only had to refund an amount covering $6.45 per month over a relatively short period. Further, the ruling doesn’t cover union dues, but rather extra “fees” which they take from their members for special circumstances. But the wider implications of this case may be a lot more than pocket change. The full text of the majority decision makes this look like a new precedent. Previously the court has allowed unions to withhold dues or other “fees” and it was incumbent upon the worker to proactively “opt out” of it to avoid paying. The way Alito wrote this makes it sound very much as if unions should have to go and obtain affirmative consent from each worker before any money can be withheld.

The breakdown on the decision probably wasn’t all that surprising. Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito were with the majority decision. Sotomayor and Ginsburg voted in favor, but chose not to sign off on Alito’s opinion. Breyer and Kagan dissented. And there’s a bit of interesting insight to be found in Breyer’s dissent.

“The debate about public unions’ collective bargaining rights is currently intense,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in a dissent. “There is no good reason for this court suddenly to enter the debate, much less now to decide that the Constitution resolves it.”

So Breyer, of all people, is suddenly worried about the court looking too political? I was unaware that there were established “seasons” for justice. Also, he seems to vaguely question the constitutionality of ruling on such a case. Really? When you strip away all the pomp and politics and hype, this boils down to a case of somebody taking somebody else’s money without their permission and over their objections. That sounds suspiciously like theft to me, and I don’t think there’s ever been a question of whether or not the states can make theft illegal.

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