Even in his hometown of Springfield, Mark Janus is a relatively unknown figure.
Janus is a state employee who works in a nondescript office investigating child support claims. He’s also a divorced father of two adult children and he volunteers to help Boy Scouts.
Until recently there was little in the 65-year-old man’s life that would indicate he would make history. But on Feb. 26 the United States Supreme Court will hear his case.
At stake is whether government workers should, as a condition of employment, be compelled to pay money to a union.
“I would say this case has the potential to be a landmark case,” Harvard University Law Professor Benjamin Sachs told Illinois Times. “Essentially, if the court rules in Mr. Janus’ favor, it would put every government worker in the United States under a right-to-work regime.”
Sachs, an expert in labor law, has filed an amicus brief opposing Janus’ position.
Janus doesn’t belong to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees but must pay about $500 of the $70,000 he earns a year to the union in what are called “agency” or “fair share” fees.
“I became involved in this lawsuit because I wasn’t told about these fees I would have to pay and I didn’t like it,” Janus said. “When I asked around I was told it was state law and it was mandated, which I didn’t appreciate. The longer I paid it, the more upset I got.”
He has worked two stints with state government for a total of 16 years.
Union leaders contend it is unfair for some workers not to pay for the cost of negotiating a contract.
“Since the union is required by law to represent all workers, and since all workers benefit, it’s only fair that all workers share the cost of that representation,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31.
In 2016, a California teacher named Rebecca Friedrichs made the same argument as Janus before the high court.
Based on the questions asked by the justices, many courtroom observers believed the court would rule in her favor. And then Justice Antonin Scalia died.
The court ended up deadlocked with a four-four vote and failed to issue an opinion. Since the legal issues are the same, many legal observers believe Scalia’s replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, will cast the deciding vote in the Janus case.
“We are going into this case optimistic,” said Jacob Huebert, an attorney with the Liberty Justice Center. “Of course, we don’t know how this will come out. It really depends on what Justice Gorsuch decides. He doesn’t really have a history on ruling on these types of cases.”
The Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Foundation are representing Janus in the lawsuit. Both free-market organizations are providing their legal services at no cost to him.
“I couldn’t have afforded to pursue this case on my own and we just found each other,” Janus said of the two organizations.
But AFSCME sees things differently.
“Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31 is nothing more than a politically motivated assault on the freedom of working people to earn a better life and an attempt to further rig the rules in favor of billionaires and corporate interests,” Lindall said. “In these turbulent times marked by division and attacks on fact and reason, we hope the Supreme Court will consider carefully the facts, precedent, decades of labor peace and stability, and the motivations behind those seeking to undo it.”
But Janus said he is no one’s pawn.
“I’m really not doing this for the notoriety or to make a name for myself. I’m really doing this because I want to support all of the government workers to stand up against these fees that are mandated in 22 states including Illinois and try to do something about it. It’s not just me, there are thousands of government workers who are in the same boat.”
For supporters of Janus what is at issue is whether anyone should be compelled to support political speech they don’t agree with.
Chief Justice John Roberts asked during oral arguments in the Friedrichs case for an example of “non-political speech” that the union negotiates at the bargaining table.
The example a lawyer for the union involved in the case gave was mileage reimbursement rates.
But Roberts countered that even that constitutes political speech because it deals with how tax dollars should be spent.
“Everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere,” added Justice Antonin Scalia during the Friedrichs arguments.
Janus sees his situation in similar terms.
“The union is out there seeking $3 billion in new benefits from an institution that can’t afford it. When the governor said, ‘No, we can’t afford this,’ what did AFSCME do? They got people together and they tried to lobby for a tax increase. If that isn’t politicking I don’t know what is.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran Statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.