By Greg Stohr, Bloomberg News

The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked in one of its highest profile cases, issuing a 4-4 ruling that lets more than 20 states continue to require public-sector workers to help fund the union that represents them.

Union opponents had looked to be on the brink of a watershed victory that would have conferred a First Amendment right for workers to withhold fees. Justice Antonin Scalia’s Feb. 13 death changed the dynamic, depriving that side of what probably would have been a fifth vote.

The case, which involved California teachers, could have affected as many as 5 million public-sector workers. The 4-4 split leaves intact a 1977 ruling that said public-sector employees can be compelled to pay for representation as long as they don’t have to cover the cost of political or ideological activities.

Arguments in January suggested the court’s conservative wing was poised to overturn that precedent. Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the court’s decisive vote, said that teachers were being forced to subsidize their union even when they disagree on such issues as merit pay and classroom size.

Although the court didn’t reveal who voted on which side or give any reasoning, the justices made their positions clear in a 2014 case that touched on the issue. In that decision, the court’s four Democratic appointees defended the 1977 ruling, while the five Republican appointees — including Scalia — expressed skepticism.

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