WASHINGTON - A well-planned legal assault on public unions collapsed Tuesday when the Supreme Court deadlocked over a California woman's lawsuit to strike down mandatory fees, the strongest evidence yet that Justice Antonin Scalia's death has stymied the court's conservative justices.
The 4-4 split keeps in place a 1970s-era rule that authorizes unions to require municipal employees, teachers, college instructors, and transit workers to pay a "fair share fee" to help cover the cost of collective bargaining.
The tie vote, while widely expected after Scalia's death, nevertheless came as a relief to union officials who feared the conservative justices were on the brink of striking down the pro-union law as a violation of free speech.
Tie votes could be a theme this year as the justices vote on several major disputes that divide along ideological lines, including abortion, election districts, and immigration.
The White House said the court's deadlock in the union case underscores the need for the Senate to confirm President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Republican-controlled Senate is refusing to act on Garland's nomination, saying the next president should fill Scalia's seat.
"With a Supreme Court that's not fully staffed, it makes it more likely that situations can arise across the country with different rulings in different courts that aren't resolved by the Supreme Court," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Earlier this month, the court split 4-4 in a narrow case involving spousal liability and gender discrimination, the first such vote since Scalia's death.
The deadlock in the union case leaves in place mandatory fees allowed by law in California and 22 other mostly Democratic states. Such fees are prohibited in the "right to work" states across the South and in much of the Midwest.
Orange County, Calif., teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and several others had sued to overturn the fees, saying they objected being forced to support the California Teachers Association.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected her suit, citing the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which had authorized these "fair share fees" in the first place. That case held that workers could be required to share in the cost of collective bargaining, but they did not have pay for a union's political activities.
Before Scalia's death, the court's five more conservative justices had served notice that they were ready to overturn Abood and declare such forced fees unconstitutional.
The same five justices who in the Citizens United case struck down campaign spending limits on free-speech grounds seemed to view the union fees as a similar First Amendment violation.
Instead, on Tuesday, the justices issued a one-line statement saying the Ninth Circuit's ruling is "affirmed by an equally divided court."
Labor law scholars said unions would have been crippled if employees were told they need not pay anything to support the union. "It would have been like a knife in the heart of the unions," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts.
"This is great news," said Charles Wowkanech, who leads the New Jersey AFL-CIO, the state's largest federation of labor unions. "That is what we were hoping for, with a tie vote."
"This decision is a major victory for NJEA members and all working Americans," Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, said in a statement. "From the beginning, this case was about breaking unions and silencing the voices of middle-class Americans."
On the other side of the issue, Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, said in a statement: "While we are disappointed that the Supreme Court's 4-4 deadlock leaves union officials' forced dues powers over public sector employees in place, an evenly split court always seemed like the most likely outcome after the sudden passing of Justice Scalia.
"Today's order means Rebecca Friedrichs' case probably won't be the one to finally free public servants from being forced to fund the activities of union bosses just to work for their own government, but the issue is not going away and could return to the High Court soon."
Staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen contributed to this article.