The US Supreme Court has once again sided with the states over Congress in a dispute over governmental power.
This time the court, in a 5-to-4 ruling, found that states, in their role as employers of millions of citizens, cannot be sued by workers for discrimination under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Yesterday's decision is a setback to disabilities-rights advocates, who have long fought to break down barriers preventing people with disabilities from participating fully in American life. They argued that states, like many private employers, discriminate against individuals because of their disabilities and that they, too, should be held liable.
Instead, the high court dismissed two lawsuits filed against the State of Alabama by state workers suing under the 10-year-old ADA. The court found that 11th Amendment sovereign immunity protected Alabama from such lawsuits.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said some "half a dozen" examples cited to Congress of discrimination by states against the disabled did not rise to
the level of a pattern of irrational employment discrimination egregious enough to violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
"States are not required by the Fourteenth Amendment to make special accommodations for the disabled, so long as their actions towards such individuals are rational," the chief justice writes. "They could quite hardheadedly - and perhaps hardheartedly - hold to job-qualification requirements which do not make allowance for the disabled."
Continues trend toward states' rights
The decision, joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy, marks the most recent in a growing body of federalism decisions since 1995. It is part of a broad trend in which the court's five conservatives, led by Chief Justice Rehnquist, are seeking to restore what they view as key elements of the federal-state power balance as conceived by the nation's Founding Fathers.
One pillar of this federalism is the idea that American government is comprised of dual sovereigns, with both the federal and state governments existing on equal footing. If the federal government - through Congress - was able to impose its will upon the states whenever it wished, the essence of American federalism would disappear.
Defining 'pattern' of discrimination
Under certain circumstances Congress may override the states' 11th Amendment immunity. For example, that could happen if states engage in a pattern of discriminatory behavior that violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.
Lawyers for the Alabama workers and various civil rights groups argued to the high court that ADA falls into that special category.
But the majority rejected the argument.
"These incidents taken together fall far short of even suggesting the pattern of unconstitutional discrimination on which [legislation passed under the Fourteenth Amendment] must be based," Rehnquist writes.
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said he found more than enough evidence in the congressional record to justify the application of the ADA to the states.
"There are roughly 300 examples of discrimination by state governments in the legislative record," Justice Breyer writes. "I fail to see how this evidence 'falls short of even suggesting [a] pattern of unconstitutional discrimination&#8230;' "
The dissent was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
At issue in the case, Alabama v. Garrett, was whether a state employee may sue the employing state agency for alleged discrimination under the federal disabilities act.
Lawyers for Alabama say such employees must rely on state law and state courts to seek a remedy for alleged discriminatory conduct by a state official or agency.
Lawyers for the workers say Congress acted properly when it extended the federal civil rights law to cover states.
The two plaintiffs in the pending ADA suits against Alabama are Patricia Garrett and Milton Ash. Ms. Garrett, a nursing supervisor at a state-run hospital, claims she was demoted after she took time off from work to undergo cancer treatments. Garrett complains that, rather than accommodating her illness, a supervisor used it against her to reassign her to a less-important job.
Mr. Ash, a security guard at a state youth agency who is diagnosed with severe asthma, says he was forced to work in a guardhouse with heavy smokers and to drive cars emitting noxious fumes into the passenger compartment. Ash asked the agency to either reassign him or enforce the agency's no-smoking restrictions. In addition he asked that the agency's cars be repaired.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had sided with the workers. The US Supreme Court has now reversed that decision.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society