Even if President Obama cannot get a new Supreme Court justice confirmed before he leaves office, Antonin Scalia may have singlehandedly saved America’s public sector unions by dying when he did.

As you may recall if you either love or hate teachers unions, the Supreme Court last month heard arguments in Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, a case that challenges the right of public sector unions to collect mandatory fees from everyone who works under the contracts they negotiate. These “fair share” fees help pay the costs of running the union that negotiates the contracts, and anti-union activists very carefully shepherded this case to the Supreme Court with the intention of dealing a powerful blow to the strength of public unions everywhere. Supreme Court watchers widely expected the case to go 5-4 against the unions, which would mean that our nation’s public unions would become more or less “right to work” everywhere, which means that they would likely shrink in membership and power.

But by dying tragically as he did, it appears that Antonin Scalia has now left the court with what may be a 4-4 ruling on Friedrichs. That would mean that the lower court’s ruling—which was in favor of the union—would be affirmed. (Update: It is also possible that the court could call for the case to be reargued once a new judge is appointed, though no one can say with certainty yet.) This, which does not depend on any Congressional maneuvering or political grandstanding, could be the most important direct legacy of Antonin Scalia’s death. Public unions will live to fight another day. At a time when the 26th state just went “right to work,” giving anti-union forces a majority of the US states, that is quite an unexpected and well appreciated gift for the labor movement.

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Crazy how things happen sometimes.

[Photo: AP]

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