By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday gave itself another chance to decide an issue that could choke off a vital source of money for unions around the country representing police, teachers and other government employees.
The justices agreed to hear a case brought by a non-union government employee in Illinois that targets fees that his state and many others compel such workers to pay to unions in lieu of dues to fund collective bargaining and other organized labor activities.
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The state employee, Mark Janus, is appealing a lower court ruling that rejected his claim that such fees violate free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. Janus is a child-support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
"We are now one step closer to freeing over 5 million public-sector teachers, police officers, firefighters and other employees from the injustice of being forced to subsidize a union as a condition of working for their own government," said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union legal activist group that represents Janus.
The high court heard a similar challenge out of California in January 2016 and had appeared headed toward ruling the fees unconstitutional. But conservative justice Antonin Scalia died a month later and the short-handed court ended up with a 4-4 split in April 2016 that left the law intact but set no nationwide precedent.
Scalia has since been replaced by another conservative, Republican President Donald Trump's appointee Neil Gorsuch, who legal experts believe would be sympathetic toward the challenge and likely to rule against the Illinois law. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.
"The Janus case is a blatantly political and well-funded plot to use the highest court in the land to further rig the economic rules against everyday working people," leading public-sectors unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is the defendant in the case, said in a joint statement.
The Illinois case will be one of the most important that the nine justices will decide during their new term that begins on Monday and runs through next June. Ending the so-called agency fees at the heart of the case has long been a goal of U.S. conservatives. Unions tend to support Democrats in elections, although agency fees are not used for political activities.
The case takes aim at a decades-old practice in many states allowing public-sector unions to collect fees from workers who do not want to the belong to the union as long as the money is not spent on political activities.
Organized labor has expressed concern that a ruling throwing out the fees would give employees less incentive to join public-sector unions because they would still be represented by the union in collecting bargaining and receive the benefits from that without having to pay for it.
The case stems from a fight between Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and public-sector unions over his 2015 executive order to stop the fees. Rauner asked a federal court to declare the fees unconstitutional and support his authority to issue the order.
U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman in Chicago dismissed Rauner's complaint, ruling that the governor had no legal standing to bring the case and that the court lacked jurisdiction to decide the matter. But Gettleman allowed state workers who pay agency fees to sue public-sector unions.
Gettleman dismissed the workers' complaint in 2016, and the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his decision in March.
A loss for unions representing teachers, police, transit workers, firefighters and other government employees would deprive them of millions of dollars annually and diminish their political clout.
LABOR LAW PRECEDENT
The Illinois case offers the justices a chance to overturn a significant labor law precedent from 1977. In the case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the high court held that such payments to unions by non-members did not violate the Constitution's First Amendment free-speech guarantee because non-members otherwise would benefit from collective bargaining at no cost.
Twenty-two states have not banned agency fee requirements, covering about 5 million public-sector workers. Twenty-eight states have so-called right-to-work laws under which fees are not required. In those states, unions still represent workers but membership rates are lower. Federal employee unions cannot collect such fees.
The Supreme Court case does not affect private-sector unions.
Under the agency fee system, workers who do not join the union must pay a fee equal to union dues. Non-members can then seek a refund of the portion the union spent on lobbying and activities unrelated to collective bargaining or contract administration.
The conservative-majority Supreme Court has signaled dissatisfaction with the Abood ruling in two prior cases in recent years.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Robert Iafolla; Editing by Will Dunham)