Age-Discrimination Ruling Is Seen as Victory for States

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Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when it amended the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to cover states and their political subdivisions, such as cities and school districts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.

The 5-4 decision was the latest triumph for states in a wave of cases in recent years challenging the authority of Congress to abrogate the states' immunity from lawsuits under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The court ruled in 1995, for example, that Congress lacked authority under the Constitution's commerce clause to make it a federal crime to possess a gun near a school.

In its Jan. 11 ruling in Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents (Case No. 98-791), the court held that Congress lacked authority under the 14th Amendment when it extended the ADEA to cover the states and their political subdivisions in 1974. Under the statute, workers who are 40 or older may sue their employers in federal court if they believe they have suffered discrimination based on age.

The high court case was a consolidation of separate ADEA cases involving 36 current and former faculty members and librarians at Florida State University and Florida International University, two professors at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, and a state corrections officer in Florida. All the plaintiffs had sued their state employers, alleging age discrimination under the federal statute.

The Florida university plaintiffs' suit was backed by the National Education Association and its state affiliate, the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA.

The union had urged the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, that states cannot be sued under the ADEA.

But the high court upheld the court of appeals. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the "requirements the ADEA imposes on state and local governments are disproportionate to any unconstitutional conduct that conceivably could be targeted by the act."

Joining her on the central holding of the case were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority was engaging in "judicial activism."

"Federal rules outlawing discrimination in the workplace, like the regulation of wages and hours or health and safety standards, may be enforced against public as well as private employers," Justice Stevens said. "Neither the 11th Amendment nor the doctrine of sovereign immunity places any limit" on Congress' power to legislate in that area. He was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

'Patchwork Quilt'

The decision's impact on age-discrimination claims in public education may be limited. As Justice O'Connor noted, "state employees are protected by state age-discrimination statutes, and may recover money damages from their state employers, in almost every state of the Union."

Robert H. Chanin, the general counsel of the NEA, agreed that "there are other remedies available."

"But this has taken away one of the most effective remedies," he added.

Still, it is not a legal certainty that all K-12 districts are now immune from lawsuits under the statute, Mr. Chanin said.

That's because federal courts have ruled differently about whether political subdivisions such as cities and school districts are considered arms of the state for purposes of 11th Amendment immunity, he said. Federal courts have ruled that school districts in California are akin to state agencies, based on the state's constitution and government framework.

"It's a patchwork quilt" of rulings, Mr. Chanin said.

Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said she immediately disseminated the ruling to the group's members across the country.

"I think this applies to us," she said. But she cautioned that the ruling should not be read by districts as an invitation to begin discriminating on the basis of age.

"Most states have statutes that cover this anyway," she said.

Based on anecdotal evidence, Ms. Underwood said, ADEA claims involving school districts are relatively rare.

Parents vs. Grandparents

Separately last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a closely watched case on whether grandparents may be granted child-visitation rights against parents' wishes.

The case is noteworthy from an educational perspective because some of the high court's most important precedents in this area of family law involved disputes between parents and schools.

In 1993, Jenifer and Gary Troxel asked a Washington state court for visitation rights to see their two grandchildren after their son committed suicide and the mother of the girls sought to limit how much time the Troxels could spend with them. The grandparents made the request under a state law that allowed any interested third parties to seek such rights, regardless of whether they were related to the children they wanted to visit.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the state law was unconstitutional because it interfered with parents' fundamental rights to raise their children as guaranteed under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

In doing so, the court cited three landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases in education law: Meyer v. Nebraska, a 1923 case in which the court struck down a state law prohibiting the teaching of foreign languages in school; Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a 1925 case in which the court struck down a state law prohibiting parents from sending their children to private schools; and Wisconsin v. Yoder, a 1972 case in which the court affirmed the right of Amish parents to prevent their children from attending secondary school.

The Troxels' lawyer, Mark D. Olson, argued in a court brief that although each of those decisions supported the rights of parents, they also involved other powerful constitutional issues, such as the First Amendment clause protecting the free exercise of religion.

That was not the situation in the case now before the high court, Mr. Olson argued, maintaining that the state supreme court had given too much weight to parental wishes alone in determining whether children can be exposed to particular people or ideas.

Mr. Olson alluded briefly to that position in last week's oral arguments. He contended that if the Washington Supreme Court's ruling was upheld, it could result in parents' being able to "dictate" what their children learn in school.

A ruling in Troxel v. Glanville (No. 99-138) is expected this summer.

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Pages 24, 26

Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as Age-Discrimination Ruling Is Seen as Victory for States
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