The U.S. Supreme Court shielded states from claims that they illegally denied medical leave to workers, dividing along ideological lines in a clash about the federal government’s power over the states.
The justices, voting 5-4, ruled against Daniel Coleman, a Maryland state court employee who was fired after requesting medical leave. The majority said states can’t be sued for damages for violating the sick-leave provisions of the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act.
The decision marks a shift for the court, giving new life to a line of rulings in the 1990s that bolstered states’ legal immunity and split the nine justices. That movement came to a halt in 2003, when the court said state workers could seek damages for violations of other provisions in the federal family-leave law.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, all appointed by Republican presidents, formed the majority in today’s decision.
“As a consequence of our constitutional design, money damages are the exception when sovereigns are defendants,” Kennedy wrote for four justices in the court’s lead opinion.
The decision prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to take the unusual step of reading a summary of her dissent from the bench.
The 2003 case focused on provisions in the 1993 law that let workers take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or a family member with a serious medical condition. The six-justice majority in that case said Congress was exercising its power under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment to address gender discrimination.
Kennedy said the sick-leave provision was different because it didn’t address gender bias.
“Without widespread evidence of sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave, it is apparent that the congressional purpose in enacting the self-care provision is unrelated to these supposed wrongs,” he said.
Ginsburg said from the bench that the family-leave law “advances women’s economic opportunities and supports a more egalitarian relationship at home and at work.” She added that “self-care leave is a key part of Congress’s endeavor to make it feasible for women to work and have families.”
Ginsburg was one of four Democratic appointees in the minority, joining Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The decision affects only public employers and doesn’t apply to companies. “At least the damage is contained,” Ginsburg said.
The 14th Amendment authorizes Congress to enforce its provisions, including the rights to equal protection and due process.
Scalia wrote separately to say he would put sharper limits on Congress’s 14th Amendment power in contexts other than racial discrimination. Beyond that, Congress can address only “conduct that itself violates the 14th Amendment,” he said, adding that the medical-leave provision “does not come close” to meeting that standard.
Coleman’s lawyer, Michael Foreman, said the ruling “really frustrates Congress’s ability to deal with something that seemingly everybody recognizes, with the exception of Justice Scalia.”