Sherwood's Notebook: ‘It Will Be Momentous'

Again, the rush of news consumes us. Too much of it horrific.

The slaughter in Las Vegas.

The heartache and ruin in Puerto Rico made worse, many believe, by the slow federal response and the insensitive tweeting by President Donald Trump.

And, now a month later, who even still worries or thinks about how the people in Houston are managing the devastation after Hurricane Harvey?

Now comes maybe a political hurricane of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened its new term this week.

"There’s only one prediction that’s entirely safe about the upcoming term," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said late last month at Georgetown’s law school. "And that is, it will be momentous."

One case involves the artistry of a baker who sells his creations to the public but, for religious reasons, refuses to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Do the baker’s religious beliefs override his public license? If yes, what restrictions on discrimination would be allowed? Would we see signs again on doors saying who will and won’t be served?

Another case explores the impact of gerrymandering, the overt political drawing of election boundaries to determine political outcomes. A ruling by the court could upend American politics. (Redistricting again becomes a big deal after the 2020 census. That’s why the 2018 elections are so important.)

A third case is the limit of your privacy rights while using a cellphone. How private is your life when a phone can track your every move and that information could be made available to law enforcement or other government entities?

Your Notebook also is watching a workplace case that, depending on how it is decided, could cripple the finances of public sector unions.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1977 said public service workers did not have to belong to unions but at least were required to pay an “agency fee” to any union that legally represented those workers for pay and work rules. Any such fee cannot be used by unions for political activities.

But a case on appeal out of Illinois (Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) seeks to overturn that ruling. Mark Janus, a child support specialist, contends that workers should not be compelled to pay any union dues at all.

Labor union leaders worry the conservative-leaning court is poised to overturn the 1977 ruling. It’s important because public sector unions are a stronghold of union membership and power. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 34 percent of public sector workers are covered by unions, far more than the 6.5 percent of private-sector workers. In local government, about 40 percent of workers are covered by union contracts.

In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools filed a brief in the case supporting the right of unions to assess non-members. The teachers’ union is particularly strong in Montgomery County. The brief argues that agency fees give unions "financial security" to represent all workers covered.

Janus is represented pro bono in his case by attorneys from the National Right to Work Foundation.

There could be one bright side for public employee unions, some observers say. If they lose the right to assess non-members, it will prompt — or force — the unions to become more aggressive in recruiting members and educating them on what unions do for workers. It clearly is a fight that will take on more urgency if the Supreme Court torpedoes the current dues system.

■ Momentous birthdays, too. This week, more lightheartedly, we quote our former wife, Deborah Jones Sherwood, who observed another birthday this week. Read the whole column on her blog,, but here’s an excerpt:

"I am part of a generation that said, 'Never Trust Anyone Over 30.' I am now twice that, plus a little more.

"Aside from my short term memory deficit, growing old can be quite advantageous as well as entertaining. I get to board flights first, I get discounts at movies, stores, restaurants, and people don’t seem so miffed when I say, 'I’m sorry, I forgot.'

"One of the many great things about being an old lady is that so many strangers are willing to help me. One afternoon, I was walking down a flight of stairs when a young woman coming toward me said, ‘Excuse me, but did you know your shoe is untied?’ (I didn’t.) I thanked her and leaned over to tie it when she said, 'Let me do that for you.’

"The physical aspects of aging are obvious; I don’t walk as quickly or as far, and I could swear I used to be taller. On the upside, I am no longer terrified when I catch my reflection in a store window, since I finally concluded my mother isn’t haunting me. I often wear a feather clip which covers my thinning hair. It’s actually kind of cute and makes people think I’m quirky.

"I am now at the greatly advanced age of sixty-nine.

"My mailbox is incessantly stuffed with catalogues sent by companies anxious to sell me items all beneficial to my aging body. Compression socks, oversized cell phones with gigantic buttons, and vitamin supplements top the list.

"One by one they get tossed into the recycle bin. Although, I have considered an ‘I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up’ button. Might be worth looking into."

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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