Congress Overstepped Bounds with Age-Discrimination Move

By Murray, Frank J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

Congress Overstepped Bounds with Age-Discrimination Move


Murray, Frank J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Congress unconstitutionally intruded on states' rights when it expanded the age-discrimination ban to cover state employees, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in its latest decision to nullify a federal mandate on the states.

"In stripping the states of their sovereign immunity Congress exceeded its authority," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said from the bench. She announced the decision moments before the court heard arguments on whether letting rape victims sue attackers in federal court invades state prerogatives protected by the same constitutional provision.

Justice O'Connor's opinion for the court upheld stands by Florida and Alabama against three dozen college employees and a prison guard in Florida plus two associate professors from Alabama's state-run University of Montevallo.

The court said Congress could only intervene under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment to enforce discrimination by states on such constitutionally protected grounds as race or religion.

"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," said the opinion backed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

The court said Congress had no evidence of state wrongdoing when it voted in 1972 to place state and local governments under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which until then applied only to private businesses. Except for police and firefighters, hiring or pay decisions could not be based on age for workers over 39 years old.

The decision upheld appeals by Florida and Alabama and also applies to a raft of cases from other states, including pending high court appeals from Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico and Tennessee.

"There's been a danger for some time that Congress was trying to expand its powers over the states by [the enforcement clause] of the 14th Amendment," said Stephen McCutcheon of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed a brief in the case.

"We are delighted that the high court has returned to a common sense reading of the Constitution, and a recognition that the people of the several states are more than able to govern themselves," said Paul A. …

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