National News

Liberals lose big before U.S. Supreme Court

By Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON - American liberalism's losing streak at the United States Supreme Court gained pace Monday, with two big defeats in cases involving public-sector unions and insurance coverage for birth control.

The recent results have been historic, in different ways.

In 2012, statistical analyst Nate Silver assessed the current court as the most conservative in modern American history. The court had already struck down a restriction on corporate political donations, but it had yet to erode the Voting Rights Act, side against affirmative action, or limit the number of carbon-emitting plants the administration can regulate.

A constitutional law professor, Adam Winkler at UCLA, later declared 2013 one of the worst years ever for a United States government before the court, with the Obama administration winning a mere 37 per cent of cases it participated in.

As the court wraps up for its summer break, it's now clear 2014 won't be any different.

In an end-of-session double-header, the high court struck down mandatory employee contributions to public-sector unions, and allowed companies to stop covering certain contraceptives under Obamacare.

The latter case drew noisier political reaction. With women considered a prized demographic in this fall's congressional elections, Democrats signalled their intention to stoke the issue over the coming months and keep it in public view by introducing a contraception bill.

A spokesman for President Barack Obama also criticized the ruling. He was asked at the daily White House briefing how the constitutional lawyer in the Oval Office — that's Obama's profession by training — felt about the verdict.

"The constitutional lawyer in the Oval Office disagrees with that conclusion from the Supreme Court," said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest. "Primarily because he's concerned about the impact that it could have on the health of those women."

In the so-called Hobby Lobby case, an arts-and-crafts company run by Southern Baptists was allowed to opt-out of paying for coverage for certain types of birth control — specifically, post-fertilization care which opponents frequently liken to abortion.

The company was deemed to have religious-freedom rights.

The court ruled largely along gender lines in its 5-4 verdict. Five men voted on one side, opposed by one man and the court's three women. In the dissenting opinion, the minority judges called it a dangerous precedent, with potentially widespread consequences.

"In a decision of startling breadth, the court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs," said the dissenting opinion.

"Again, the court forgets that religious organizations exist to serve a community of believers. For-profit corporations do not fit that bill."

The clashing opinions point to a bitter long-term battle ahead.

The struggle over the Supreme Court will likely intensify in the coming years, with four justices now older than 75. The ability to shape that court, perhaps for decades to come, looms as an issue in different elections — not only in the presidential contest of 2016 but, first, in this fall's vote for the Senate, where judges are confirmed or rejected.

Given the stakes involved, the conversation can get a little unseemly.

The dean of the UC Irvine School of Law wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Times this year urging Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire. The 81-year-old liberal has battled health problems. The editorial warned that should she eventually be replaced by a right-winger, that might give the court enough votes to overturn the landmark Roe vs. Wade abortion verdict.

It's not that the current court always votes the same way.

In fact, the justices angered many conservatives by upholding Obamacare, its verdict appearing to hang on a technicality. It also struck down a federal ban on same-sex marriage, although it's expected to hear more cases on the issue.

But its decisions Monday fit the broader pattern.

The court dealt a blow to public-sector unions, ruling that thousands of Illinois home health-care workers who are employed by private subcontractors cannot be required to pay fees that help cover a union's costs of collective bargaining.

The ruling is a financial setback for labour unions, cutting them off from a growing source of financing.

Union participation has already plummeted in the U.S.

About 31 per cent of Canadian workers are unionized. In the U.S., it's only 11 per cent — with the participation rate having fallen in half since the early 1980s. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it's only in the public sector where the union presence remains notable, at 35 per cent enrolment compared to six per cent in the private sector.

The bureau says union workers earn, on average, $200 more per week than their non-union counterparts.

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