By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Political divisions over a U.S. Supreme Court case that could diminish the influence of public sector unions have prompted an unusual spat between top elected officials in Illinois that is playing out on the court's docket.
In a case backed by conservatives, nonunion public school teachers are challenging California's requirement that they pay the equivalent of union dues, saying it violates their free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. The court in January will hear the case, one of the most important of its current term, and rule by the end of June.
The Illinois dispute pits Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who has taken aim at public sector unions in his state, against the state's Democratic attorney general, Lisa Madigan.
Rauner last month filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the high court backing the nonunion California teachers who are challenging the fees they are forced to pay as an alternative to union dues under state law.
Teachers who do not want to join the California Teacher's Union do not have to pay toward its political activity, but under a decades-old practice must contribute "agency fees" that pay for the union's collective bargaining.
Madigan then sent a letter to the Supreme Court saying lawyers for Rauner had "no authority" to file court papers on behalf of the governor. Madigan contends the governor must get approval from the attorney general before making such a filing.
Rauner's lawyers responded on Oct. 1 with a rebuttal criticizing Madigan's intervention, saying her the letter contained "many factual omissions and legal misstatements." They said the governor filed his brief as an individual, not as a representative of his state.
Illinois is one of more than 20 states with a system similar to California's. Michigan and 17 other states, not counting Illinois, have filed court papers backing the nonunion teachers.
Briefs supporting the union have not yet been filed. Madigan has not yet said whether she will participate.
With Democrats generally supportive of unions and Republicans eager to weaken them, the Illinois dispute illustrates the political divide that lurks in the background of the case.
Rauner, who took office in January, has issued an executive order saying that Illinois government agencies should stop enforcing agency fee provisions in public sector union collective bargaining agreements that automatically deduct fees from the paychecks of nonunion workers.
The governor also filed a lawsuit challenging the state agency fee laws.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)