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Decision bad for disabled, good for states

As I See It

In a recent opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state employees couldn’t sue their employer for violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The court found that the states are protected by sovereign immunity provided in the 11th Amendment and against the plaintiffs who tried to use the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to extend ADA to state employees.

The decision, with Justices O’Conner, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy joining with Chief Justice Rehnquist, is another example of the Court’s growing respect for traditional federalism. A pillar of federalism is the idea that American government is comprised of two sovereigns, with both the federal and state governments existing on equal footing. If the federal government can impose its will upon the states whenever it wished, the essence of American federalism would disappear.

The court’s five conservative justices have sought since the mid-90’s to restore the key elements of the federal-state power balance as conceived by the founding fathers.

At issue is whether a state employee may sue the employing state agency for alleged discrimination under the federal disabilities act. The two plaintiffs in the case were both employees of the State of Alabama.

One, Patricia Garrett, was a nursing supervisor at a state-run hospital who claims that she was demoted after she took time off from work to undergo cancer treatments.

The other, Milton Ash, was a security guard at a state youth agency who was diagnosed with severe asthma. Mr. Ash filed suit to enforce the agency’s no-smoking restrictions and to require that the agency’s automobiles be repaired to stop them from emitting noxious fumes into the passenger compartment.

The plaintiffs had lost in the trial court and won their case at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court decision reverses the 11th Circuit ruling.

Under certain circumstances Congress may override the states’ 11th Amendment immunity. Such extension of federal authority could happen if states engage in a pattern of discriminatory behavior that violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Congress exercised its authority to override sovereign immunity by making the federal civil rights laws binding on the states. Lawyers for the Alabama workers argued that ADA falls into the same category as civil rights. The majority rejected the argument.

In the absence of a clear “pattern of discriminatory behavior,” employees of state government must rely on state law and state courts to seek a remedy of alleged discriminatory conduct by a state official or agency. Four of the Supreme Court justices found a pattern of discriminatory behavior and voted to extend ADA coverage to state agencies.

The founders of our country were very wise men. They realized that “all politics are local” and that the lowest level of government is the most responsive to the constituents. Accordingly, they reserved all powers to the states unless specifically awarded to the federal government.

They believed that federal jurisdiction should be limited to those areas where the states could not adequately handle the situation.

This tendency to limit federal authority has strengthened our democracy. Citizens need to feel that they can influence government and that their problems will be addressed appropriately. Do you think a call to President Bush would be as effective at solving a problem as a call to your local mayor or legislator? I doubt it.

People shouldn’t be faulted for trying to win in federal court what they can’t win at the state level. Everybody wants to win. Even President Bush resorted to the federal courts to conclude the recent presidential election because he thought his chances for winning were better at the federal level. I personally think the Supreme Court erred in interfering with the Florida vote count, but they apparently believed they had appropriate jurisdiction.

The recent Supreme Court decision denying state employees in Alabama the right to invoke the ADA was a blow to Americans with disabilities in that their access to the federal courts is now cut off. Without intending any disrespect toward disabled workers, I think the ruling was good for the country since it reaffirmed the continuing validity of our federalist system of government.

Thought for the Moment – “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” — Henry David Thoreau

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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