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Justices to Rule on Family Leaves

Supreme Court: Nevada claims the states have a 'sovereign immunity' from a 1993 federal law.


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court took up another states' rights challenge to a Clinton-era law Monday, saying it would decide whether the nation's 5 million state employees can sue if they are denied emergency family leave.

In 1993, Congress--then under Democrats' control--adopted a Clinton administration proposal requiring employers to grant workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick child or an elderly parent.

Business groups criticized the new federal mandate. Although they noted that most employers granted such requests, they questioned whether it should be written into law.

In Nevada, state officials challenged the law on quite different grounds. They said that under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, which limits lawsuits against states, the state has a "sovereign immunity" that shields it from these federal rules.

In the past, the court's conservative majority has struck down part or all of several Clinton administration laws on states' rights grounds, including the Brady Act on handgun registration, the Violence Against Women Act and the Gun-Free School Zones Act.

The same 5-4 majority also shielded state agencies from being sued by workers over claims of discrimination based on their age or disability.

The latest case began in 1997 when William Hibbs, an employee of the Nevada Department of Human Resources, requested leave to care for his ailing wife.

After using his 12 weeks, he asked for more time under a program that allowed for "catastrophic leave." In November, four months after he began the leave, Hibbs was told to return to work or be dismissed.

He did not return on time and was fired.

Hibbs filed a grievance and then brought a lawsuit challenging his dismissal as a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben, siding with the state, ruled that the Constitution's 11th Amendment shields states from lawsuits.

Bush administration lawyers defended the law, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it as a type of civil rights measure. In passing the law, Congress said it wanted to break down the gender stereotype that caring for the family is women's work. The Constitution's 14th Amendment says Congress has the power to enforce civil rights laws against states.

But the Supreme Court voted to take up Nevada's appeal to decide the broad question of whether the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to state employers. The case of Nevada vs. Hibbs, 01-1368, will be heard in the fall.

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