Political Fate of California Teachers Association Now Rests With High Court

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The Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sit for their official photograph on Oct. 8, 2010. at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Front row (L-R): Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back Row (L-R): Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr. and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. (Tim Sloan/Getty Images)

For a union that has defeated almost every challenger on the playing field of state politics for more than two decades, the California Teachers Association's most powerful opponent may turn out to be what Justice Antonin Scalia recently described as "a committee of nine unelected lawyers."

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the state's most powerful employee union has the right to require teachers to pay dues that fund the CTA's influence at both the bargaining table and the ballot box.

"The state cannot compel people to pay for speech with which they fundamentally disagree," said Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit group that filed the case on behalf of 10 California teachers.

The case has been making its way through the federal court process for the past two years en route to a ruling from the nine justices, a slow process that's made it a bit of a sleeper in the world of news but nonetheless a fight that goes to the heart of the CTA's power: The membership dues paid by more than 300,000 educators.

Like other unions, the CTA allows teachers to opt out of being full-fledged members who help fund its political campaigns. But it still requires what's called an "agency fee," dues that are supposed to cover only the costs of general services like collective bargaining. That system, itself a product of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, dates back to a 1977 case involving public school teachers in Detroit.

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This case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, asks a pretty straightforward question: Is the agency fee unconstitutional?

The plaintiffs argue that the union's bargaining efforts are also inherently political, that there's no way to filter one activity from the other. Thus, they believe teachers with a different viewpoint from the CTA's are being illegally burdened. "In 25 states, there are laws on the books that require public employees to pay dues to their union as a condition of employment," said Pell of the plaintiffs' group. "We think a majority of the court believes the time has come to put an end to this."

On the other side is not just the teachers union, but also Attorney General Kamala Harris. In a filing with the Supreme Court last month, Harris took issue with the fact that politics is inextricably linked with the union's day-to-day work.

"Negotiations addressing routine employment matters -- procedures for taking leave, for example, or the condition of faculty lounges, or the method for processing employee grievances -- are not 'political' in that sense," wrote Harris.

Critics of the system think they have a shot with the generally conservative majority of the high court, after a 2014 case involving union expenses in which Justice Samuel Alito suggested the overarching system in place since 1977 may be untenable.

In a brief joint statement on Tuesday, leaders of the CTA and other labor unions accused the Supreme Court of "reviewing decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities."

But the real stakes in this court fight are over the money that fuels the broad influence of the CTA, an influence that's felt in campaigns, lobbying and local contract negotiations. One former leader of the California Legislature went so far as to characterize the CTA's self-image as the "co-equal fourth branch of government" in a 2012 newspaper story.

A 2010 analysis by the state's campaign finance watchdog agency put the teachers union tops in political spending over the previous decade, and CTA spending has totaled tens of millions of dollars more since that report.

A ruling is expected by the summer of 2016, thus ensuring a second straight year where the nine justices weigh in on a case with profound implications for California's political landscape.