The sudden passing of Antonin Scalia, the longest-serving Supreme Court judge, has prompted partisan discord in Washington, D.C., over a replacement.
But closer to home — where Scalia is mourned and remembered as a famous product of Queens — his stunning absence sends political shock waves of a different kind.
By late Saturday, New York public-employee union officials were discussing the implications for a pending high court decision that threatened to cripple their ability to maintain dues-paying memberships.
From the Service Employees International Union to the New York State United Teachers, strategies to bolster membership were already crafted in anticipation of a ruling by June in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.
It was widely expected in labor circles that the five Republican-picked judges on the high court would hold sway over the four Democratic appointees — and overturn the long-standing requirement that public employees who refuse to join a bargaining unit’s union pay “agency shop” fees anyway.
Now that 5-4 majority becomes a 4-4 split.
“It was literally moments after the news of Justice Scalia’s unexpected death that people started to react to what the consequences would be,” said a posting Sunday on the website of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association. “Scalia was expected to be among the majority who would rule against unions.”
The 5-4 partisan divide was never a hard-and-fast calculator for decisions; the court under Chief Justice John Roberts, whom President George W. Bush put on the court, smashed expectations in famous rulings upholding Obamacare and same-sex marriage.
But in the Friedrichs case, it is widely assumed that only under this 5-4 majority would the court have chosen in the first place to review the agency-shop issue.
Analysts on all sides pointed to a particular 2014 ruling by Samuel Alito, another Bush appointee, that effectively invited the lawsuit now under review. Elena Kagan, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, in a dissent anticipating the current fight, warned against trying to undo prevailing law on which many public-employee contracts are based.
The court also heard arguments, but had yet to rule on, Evenwel v. Abbott, which could shake up the way legislative districts are drawn. As with Friedrichs, a 4-4 split would rebuff the plaintiffs’ claims — and the legal status quo would continue.