Supreme Court says states can be sued for discriminating against veterans

The ruling will strengthen labor protections for thousands of state-employed veterans returning to work after serving in the reserves or National Guard.

The result is a victory for Le Roy Torres, a veteran and former employee of the Texas Department of Public Safety. He told the agency he could no longer serve as a state trooper and sought comparable employment to accommodate his service-related disability. When he was denied the position, he sued under federal law, but lost in state court. He appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion, joined by the other Liberals as well as Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Texas had argued that states were immune from such lawsuits under the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, passed under the war powers of Congress. The law was enacted to ensure that those who serve are not disadvantaged when they return to the workforce with a service-related disability.

Breyer said that “in entering the Union” the states “implicitly agreed that their sovereignty would yield to the federal policy of building and maintaining a national military.”

And emphasizing the authority of Congress’s war powers, he noted that “Congress has wide and extensive power to raise and sustain armies.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.

Thomas said “history and precedent” show that “when states ratified the Constitution, they did not implicitly consent to actions for damages being brought in their own courts – whether authorized by the war powers of Congress or any other Article I powers”.

Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said Wednesday’s ruling “may come as a bit of a surprise to those familiar with the court’s past cases involving sovereign immunity. States”.

“For 25 years, judges have been suspicious of Congress’s power to authorize damages suits against non-consenting states under one of its Article I powers,” Vladeck said. “In 2006, the court recognized a limited exception for bankruptcy law; today, the court is adding a second for war powers. It’s easy to see why Congress’s war powers might be unique in allowing the federal government to override the states, but each exception further challenges the underlying principle.”

The case ended in a conflict between the authority of Congress to provide national defense and the ability of a state to decide when it is sued.

The decision could affect thousands of active and reserve service members nationwide who work for state agencies. The lower courts are split on whether Congress had the power to authorize such private suits.

The federal government has argued that a decision granting state immunity in this area could harm the federal government’s ability to fill the military ranks and defend the nation.

Torres enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve in 1989 and was deployed to Iraq in 2007. In Iraq, according to Torres, he suffered severe lung damage after being exposed to toxic chemicals that were disposed of in what are called combustion pits.

Prior to his deployment, Torres had been employed as a state trooper by the Texas Department of Public Safety. After being honorably discharged in 2008, he sought to be rehired by the DPS in a different position due to his pulmonary condition. The ministry refused to offer him another job, but allowed him to serve on “temporary duty” in his old job. Torres resigned.

He later sued DPS, arguing that his failure to offer him employment to accommodate his disability violated the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994. The law – intended to protect Veterans of Employment Discrimination – was passed by Congress. power to “raise and support armies”.

Tory justices seized the opportunity and delivered the advice they had long promised

During oral argument, Andrew T. Tutt, a lawyer for Torres, told the justices that “the Constitution gave Congress power to raise and sustain armies, and the reason for this grant was to ensure the survival of the nation. “. He said the protections of the law are “crucial in light of the structure of the modern military” and noted that in order to convince soldiers to join the reserve force, Congress had promised them “that they would not be not discriminated against on the basis of their military service or service-related injuries.”

The Biden administration has backed Torres in the case, arguing that the protections provided by law “are especially important today for guard and reserve forces, who both serve the nation and work for employers” and that they encourage participation.

Deputy Solicitor General Christopher G. Michel told judges that while in most cases state employers enjoy immunity from private suit, “this area is different” and that the protections of the law were born with the project of the Second World War and were extended after Vietnam.

“The Constitution was passed largely to prevent states from undermining federal efforts to raise an army,” Michel said. “Without an army, the federal government cannot defend itself.”

The United States has an army of 2 million, of which 800,000 are National Guardsmen and reservists, according to the government.

Texas Solicitor General Judd E. Stone responded that the statute’s authorization of private suits was unconstitutional because states are protected by the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity. He told the judges there was “no evidence” that the founding generation “viewed the power to expose states to private suit as inextricably linked to war or that states intended to be prosecuted without their consent by giving Congress the power to raise an army.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Chandelis Duster contributed to this report.


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