(Bloomberg) The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked in one of its highest profile cases, issuing a 4-4 ruling that lets more than 20 states continue to require public-sector workers to help fund the unions that represent them.

Union opponents had looked to be on the brink of a watershed victory that would have given workers a First Amendment right to withhold fees. Justice Antonin Scalia’s Feb. 13 death changed the dynamic, depriving that side of what probably would have been a fifth vote.

The case, which involved California teachers, could have affected as many as 5 million public-sector workers. The 4-4 split Tuesday leaves intact a 1977 ruling that said public-sector employees can be compelled to pay for representation as long as they don’t have to cover the cost of political or ideological activities.

U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

Arguments in January suggested the court’s conservative wing was poised to overturn that precedent. Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the court’s decisive vote, said that teachers were being forced to subsidize their union even when they disagree on such issues as merit pay and classroom size.

The court’s one-sentence order didn’t reveal who voted on which side or give any reasoning. The justices, however, had made their positions clear in a 2014 case that touched on the issue. In that decision, the court’s four Democratic appointees defended the 1977 ruling, while the five Republican appointees - - including Scalia -- expressed skepticism.

The deadlock is the court’s second since Scalia’s death left the court with a vacancy that may last through the November election. President Barack Obama has nominated federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia, but Senate Republican leaders say they won’t hold hearings or put the nomination to a vote.

Workplace management

The unions, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Obama administration said mandatory fees prevent non-members from becoming “free riders” who receive the benefits of collective bargaining, such as pay raises, without paying for the cost. They also argued that the Supreme Court has long given public employers the ability to limit the speech rights of employees to aid in managing the workplace.

The case was a “thinly veiled attempt to weaken collective bargaining and silence educators’ voices,” the National Education Association, which has more than 3 million members and says it’s the country’s largest union, said in a statement after the ruling.

‘Agency shop’

Under California law, public workers in what are known as “agency shop” jobs must either become dues-paying union members or pay a fee to support the union’s collective-bargaining activities.

For teachers, union dues often exceed $1,000 a year per employee, though people who don’t want to pay for political activities get a refund of $350 to $400, according to the teachers who sued.

Michael Carvin, the lawyer who argued against mandatory fees, said in an interview that Tuesday’s deadlock “was not unexpected after Justice Scalia’s untimely passing.”

Carvin said he planned to file a rehearing petition, which would ask the court not to finalize its ruling immediately and instead to hold the case until the nine-month term that starts in October. That potentially would keep the issue in front of the court until a ninth justice is seated.

The case is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, 14-915.

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