By the all-too-familiar 5–4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that workers cannot sue state governments for monetary damages when denied the unpaid time off guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The 1993 law provided those with full-time jobs at private companies of more than 50 employees and employees of federal, state, and local public governments up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave annually for family and medical reasons.
But the Supreme Court’s plurality in this case, Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, said that citizens can only sue state governments for damages when Congress finds “a pattern of constitutional violations” and tailors “a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations.” This sovereign immunity means that, while state employees have the right to take the leave, if the state blocks their exercise of that right, their only recourse is to get a judge to reverse the potential violation, in advance. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion of the court for himself, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel Alito; Justice Antonin Scalia concurred with Kennedy’s result but not his reasoning.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, on behalf of Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, took the rare step of reading her dissent aloud in court. She called the result “regrettable” and observed that the Kennedy opinion “pays scant attention to the overarching aim” of the law, which was “to make it feasible for women to work while sustaining family life.” Ginsburg said that the law was a reasonable effort by congress to ensure the equal protection guaranteed by the 14th amendment for public employees facing discrimination.
While the law remains in full force for employees of private employers, the court’s ruling significantly weakens the law’s protections for hundreds of thousands of public employees. With anti-worker rulings like this, it’s no wonder a mere 28 percent of likely voters like the job the Supreme Court is doing.