Justice Antonin Scalia died at a very high-stakes time in the Supreme Court's docket.
The court had already heard a case concerning the constitutionality of affirmative action in higher education, and was scheduled to hear others on abortion restrictions, President Obama's executive orders on immigration, and religious objections to contraception coverage.
In some of those cases, Scalia may not be the deciding vote. But according to SCOTUSblog, the most likely case to be immediately affected is Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association, the case creating an existential crisis among public sector unions, which now might breath a sigh of relief — for now.
The case concerns the ability of public sector unions to collect "agency fees" from workers who did not wish to pay for the union's political activities. Rebecca Friedrichs, a teacher in California, had argued that being forced to do so was a violation of her free speech. If the Supreme Court agreed, workers would be free to not pay for the negotiation and administration of the contract that covers them, which could drain the union's financial resources.
Now, unions and their allies had originally taken some solace in the idea that Scalia had previously shown concern about the "free rider" problem created when workers don't have to pay for services the union is obligated to provide. But his line of questioning in oral argument let most of the air out of that bubble of hope, and unions have been bracing for a 5-4 decision making the public sector essentially "right to work" nationwide.
So now, all signs point to the court deadlocking 4-4. In that scenario, the decision of the lower court — rejecting Friedrichs' argument — would be affirmed. That decision would carry no precedent, so the court would be free to accept another case with a similar fact pattern, and rule the other way. But that would take at least another year, probably more.
Nobody's taking a victory lap, though, at least publicly: The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, and the large coalition of unions and other groups organizing around Friedrichs all declined to comment late Saturday.