Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in the court's 5-4 decision. (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — State workers who are denied unpaid sick leave required by federal law cannot sue the states, the Supreme Court said in a victory for states' rights that some liberal advocates saw as a bad omen for President Obama's healthcare law.
The 5-4 decision is a setback for millions of employees of state agencies and state colleges, and it voided in part a provision in the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Among other things the act said that employees had a right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover from an illness or childbirth.
The rights of employees of private companies are unchanged by the ruling.
In this case, Daniel Coleman was fired from his job with the Maryland Court of Appeals after his request for sick leave was denied. He sued for $1.1 million in damages, alleging that his rights were violated under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
The National Partnership for Women and Families condemned the high court's decision as "appalling and dangerous." It "effectively puts state workers and their families at risk when workers become pregnant or illness strikes," said Debra Ness, the group's president.
The court's majority minimized the effects, however, noting that most state and local employees are given some paid sick leave.
The medical leave act also provides for unpaid leave to deal with a family medical emergency, but in Tuesday's decision, the court's conservative majority focused on the personal medical leave provision.
It said lawsuits by state employees permitted under the law would violate the constitutional rule that the "states, as sovereigns, are immune from suits for damages." Use of this rule, which was devised by the Rehnquist court in the mid-1990s, had receded in recent years. It reappears in the opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, just days before the court hears the 26-state challenge to Obama's healthcare law.
On March 28, on the third day of oral arguments on different aspects of the healthcare law, lawyers for Florida and other states will make their case that the planned expansion of the Medicaid program for low-income people violates states' rights because it puts an undue burden on the states.
That was the argument that prevailed in the sick leave case. Doug Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, noted the similarity and said that the "majority's failure to give due deference to Congress' express constitutional powers is troubling."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered her dissent in the courtroom. She said Congress had decided that "the best way to protect women against losing their jobs because of pregnancy or childbirth" was to give them a right to take unpaid sick leave for 12 weeks. The law gave equal rights to men, she said.
Ginsburg noted that the Labor Department could still sue state agencies that repeatedly violated its provisions. But the court's ruling bars suits from individual employees if they are fired for having taken an extended personal medical leave. They can sue if they are fired for taking family leave.
The Constitution makes no mention of states having a "sovereign immunity" if they violate federal laws, but the Rehnquist court said it was an implicit principle dating to the 18th century. Beginning in 1996, the court handed down a series of 5-4 decisions that shielded states from various federal laws.
But in 2003, to the surprise of many, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote a 6-3 decision upholding the Family and Medical Leave Act as it applies to family but not personal leave. He reasoned that Congress had acted to end sex discrimination against female workers, who because of pregnancy leave were more likely to lose their jobs. The three dissenters were Justices Antonio Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Kennedy.
The issue returned with the Coleman case.
Kennedy, in the majority opinion, dismissed the suit and said that Congress could not subject states to suits over personal sick leave because it had nothing to do with remedying a pattern of sex discrimination. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed and were joined by Thomas and Scalia.