June 30, 2014

Supreme Court Decides Harris v. Quinn

On June 30, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Harris v. Quinn, No. 11-681, holding that the First Amendment does not permit a state to compel public employees to subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union that they do not wish to join or support.

Under the Illinois Department of Human Services Home Services Program, commonly known as the Rehabilitation Program, Illinois residents may hire a personal assistant to provide home care services tailored to the individual's needs. The program is federally subsidized through Medicaid, with the goal of preventing Illinois residents from entering a nursing home or other facility.

Separately, Illinois's Public Labor Relations Act (PLRA) requires members of a bargaining unit who do not wish to join the union to pay a fee to the union. This provision is commonly known as a "fair share" provision, because it makes bargaining unit members pay their "fair share" for benefiting from the union's bargaining efforts. In 2003, Illinois passed a law making personal assistants public employees solely for purposes of the PLRA. A union was then designated as the personal assistants' exclusive representative for collective bargaining purposes, and a collective bargaining agreement required all personal assistants—even those who were not union members—to pay their "fair share" of union dues.

Three personal assistants then sued Illinois, seeking an injunction against enforcement of the fair share provision on the theory that the PLRA violates the First Amendment because it required them to pay a fee to a union that they did not wish to support. The district court dismissed their claims, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Seventh Circuit held that the fair share provision was constitutional under Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), which rejected a First Amendment challenge to a collective bargaining agreement clause requiring Detroit teachers to pay union dues even if they were nonmembers.

In a lengthy opinion, the Supreme Court held that Abood did not apply to the "quasi-public" personal assistants in the Rehabilitation Program and that the fair share provision did not otherwise satisfy the "exacting" standard of scrutiny applied in the First Amendment context.

The Court analyzed its precedent in Abood at length, concluding that it was "questionable on several grounds." The Court noted that Abood's analysis rested on a "single, unsupported sentence that its author essentially abandoned a few years later." Abood also failed to appreciate the difference between involuntarily subsidized speech in the public- and private-sector contexts, and did not anticipate a number of practical and administrative problems that later arose.

The Court also distinguished between the involved "full-fledged public employees" in Abood and the personal assistants in this case, who were public employees "for one purpose only: collective bargaining." Unlike "full-fledged" public employees in Abood, the personal assistants here were employed by their customers, and their concurrent state employment was solely for collective bargaining purposes. Thus, because of Abood's "questionable foundations," and because the personal assistants were "quite different from full-fledged public employees," the Court refused to extend Abood to the personal assistants.

Instead, the Court analyzed the constitutionality of the fair-share provision under "generally applicable First Amendment standards," including whether the fair-share provision served a "compelling state interest" that could not be achieved through "means significantly less restrictive of associational freedoms." The Court concluded that none of the proposed interests—including ensuring labor peace or promoting the personal assistants' welfare—satisfied that standard on the record presented. The Court explained that is decision was grounded in the "bedrock principle" that, except in the rarest of circumstances, "no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support."

Justice Alito delivered the opinion for the Court, in which the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy joined. Justice Kagan delivered a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined.

Download Opinion of the Court

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