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It's unwise to judge the Supreme Court by its apparent cover

Headlines of newspapers were ablaze last week with speculation about how the scales of justice at the Supreme Court seem to be tipping in a way that could hurt government employee unions. No matter what outlet you turned to, the line seemed the same -- Skeptical Supreme Court justices seem poised to hand public employee unions a major loss.

While such statements may attract eyeballs and readers, those who have experience watching how the Supreme Court works would likely agree such speculation can be dangerous. Very often what you hear from the justices in the courtroom setting doesn't reflect how they eventually vote.

The case that triggered all the punditry is one out of California. It features a number of state educators who say they believe their constitutional rights are being violated because they are required to pay agency fees to a union that represents them at the bargaining table. They say they choose to not be members of the union and they object to some of the union's positions. But they are required to pay their fees, which they say amounts to "coerced speech."

On the other side of the argument are supporters of a 1977 Supreme Court decision that established the legality of such "fair share" fees. They say if the unions were to lose those fees it would undermine workers' rights to bargain collectively.

Legal correspondence almost uniformly described the hearing last week as reflecting that the conservative majority seems set to pull the plug on that 1977 ruling. They said the liberal minority's comments seemed to indicate they are not convinced there's good reason to scuttle the precedent.

It is always interesting to talk about what could or should happen. But we aren't likely to know the outcome of this case until sometime in June. In the meantime, protecting the rights of government workers against unfair labor practices is something that experienced employment law attorneys know requires focus in the here and now.

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