Supreme Court case tests limits of time off to care for sick relatives
WASHINGTON — Congress overstepped its bounds when it extended a guaranteed 12 weeks of family leave to state employees, the Supreme Court was told Wednesday, in a Nevada case testing the protections of a widely used law aimed at easing work and family conflicts.
The court could use the case to extend a line of states’ rights rulings that tipped the balance of power from Congress to state governments, or it could mark a detour from that legal path.
At issue is Congress’ power to impose the leave requirement on state governments and the power of state government workers to sue if they think their leave rights were violated.
The case began as a straightforward claim that Nevada welfare office employee William Hibbs deserved time off from his job with the state welfare office to care for his ailing wife.
Hibbs wants to sue the state, which fired him in a dispute over how much leave he could take. Nevada claims it is immune from Hibbs’s lawsuit under the Constitution’s guarantee of state sovereignty.
In passing the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, Congress said it was acting in part to stop discrimination against both women and men. Women had suffered discrimination because of assumptions they would shoulder most of the care for children or ailing relatives, and men had suffered discrimination because they were presumed not to need time off to perform the same care, Congress reasoned.
The law applies to all workers — the nearly 5 million people employed by state governments and the many million more who work for private companies. The Bush administration is defending the law, which it says is needed to knock down the assumption that women will provide most family care.
But the state of Nevada claimed there was no record of such sex discrimination on the part of state governments, and Congress could not arbitrarily subject states to lawsuits over denied leave.
“It is not fair to assume that state managers discriminated based on some stereotype,” Nevada Assistant Attorney General Paul Taggart said during oral arguments at the high court.
In a series of “states’ rights” cases, a narrow 5-4 majority of the high court has ruled Congress overstepped its authority in passing various civil rights and safety laws.
If the court follows its recent example, it could narrow the scope of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child or to tend to a personal or family illness.
“It’s not fair,” Hibbs said in an interview this week. “The state is constantly claiming and talking about sovereign immunity, but nobody’s done anything about my rights.”
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Congress had a valid interest in trying to correct sex discrimination, and thus Hibbs could sue to enforce his rights under the law.
Other federal appeals courts have ruled state employees could not sue.
Women’s’ rights and labor groups are lined up to support Hibbs and the family leave law, while 13 other states and some conservative legal groups are supporting Nevada.
The case is similar to one the court decided two years ago, in which state workers were forbidden to use a federal disability rights law to sue their employers for money damages for on-the-job discrimination.
In both cases, states claimed immunity from such lawsuits under the Constitution and said Congress had not justified reasons to override that immunity when it passed national laws.
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