WASHINGTON -- In the clearest sign yet of the impact of Justice Antonin Scalia's death, conservative opponents of labor unions on Tuesday lost a high-profile Supreme Court dispute they once seemed likely to win.
The justices announced they were divided 4-4 in a case that considered whether unions representing government employees can collect fees from workers who choose not to join. The split vote leaves in place an appeals court ruling that upheld the practice.
The result is an unlikely victory for organized labor after it seemed almost certain the high court would rule 5-4 to overturn a system that's been in place nearly 40 years. The court is operating with only eight justices after the death of Scalia, who had been expected to rule against the unions.
The one-sentence opinion does not identify how each justice voted. It simply upholds a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But it's a major blow to conservative groups that have spent years pushing the court to overrule a 1977 precedent that allows unions to collect "fair share" fees from members and non-members alike that cover the costs of collective bargaining.
The decision came as Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was to meet with Republican Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, his first meeting with a GOP senator. President Barack Obama nominated Garland to fill the vacant seat, but Republican leaders in the Senate say they won't hold confirmation hearings or vote on the pick until a new president is elected.
The union case is among a handful of key disputes in which Scalia's vote was expected to tip the balance toward a result that favored conservatives. During arguments in the case in January, Scalia and the court's four other conservatives made it clear they were ready to deal a blow to the unions.
Since Supreme Court decisions are not final until they are handed down, nothing Scalia did or said in connection with the case before his death mattered in the outcome.
In the case, California teachers backed by a conservative group said being forced to pay union fees violated the free speech rights of nonmembers who disagree with the unions' positions. The high court had raised doubts about the viability of the 1977 precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, but it stopped short of overturning it in two recent cases. In Abood, the court said public workers who choose not to join a union can be required to pay for bargaining costs if the fees don't go toward political purposes.
The lead plaintiff was Rebecca Friedrichs, a public school teacher from Orange County, California, who said she resigned from the California Teachers Association over differences but was still required to pay about $650 a year to cover bargaining costs.
The case affects more than 5 million workers in 23 states and Washington, D.C., who are represented at the bargaining table by public sector unions. Labor officials worried the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in fees would reduce their power to bargain for higher wages and benefits for government employees.
Labor leaders called the lawsuit part of a coordinated effort by conservative groups to weaken labor rights. Union officials say the fees are necessary because the organization has a legal duty to represent all teachers, even those who are not members of the union.
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federal of State, Local and Municipal Employees, called the case a "political attack" on unions.
"AFSCME members are more resolved than ever to band together and stand up to future attempts to silence the voices of working families," he said.