The federal guarantee of 12 weeks off to care for children or ailing relatives should apply to every worker, the Bush administration argued Wednesday, as the Supreme Court considered scaling back a law intended to ease work and family conflicts.
The court could use the case to extend a line of rulings favoring states' rights, or it could mark a detour from that legal path.
At issue is Congress' power to require that states grant time off to their own state workers, and the ability of state workers to sue if they believe their leave rights have been violated.
In passing the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, Congress said it was acting in part to stop discrimination against women as well as men. Women had suffered discrimination in hiring and promotions because of assumptions they would shoulder most of the care for children or sick family, and men had suffered discrimination because they were presumed not to need time off to perform the same care, Congress reasoned.
Assistant Atty. Gen. Viet Dinh defended the law Wednesday as a practical way to counter long-standing discrimination, both overt and subtle.
"Congress sought to remedy and prevent sex-based discrimination based on assumptions about women's role in the workplace and men's role in the home," Dinh said during oral arguments at the high court.
The justices must decide whether that rationale is sturdy enough to overcome state governments' usual immunity from individuals' federal lawsuits. Congress can override that immunity in limited circumstances, but a lawyer for Nevada argued that this is not one of them.
There was inadequate evidence of sex discrimination on the part of state governments, and Congress cannot arbitrarily subject states to lawsuits over denied leave, Nevada Assistant Atty. Gen. Paul Taggart argued.
"It is not fair to assume that state managers discriminated based on some stereotype," he said.
Taggart seemed to find an ally in Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative member of the court and a leader in the states' rights effort.
"I just don't know where the government plucks 12 weeks from and says, 'We've got to stop discrimination, [so] everybody gets 12 weeks,' " Scalia said.
"The purpose of this bill was simple," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), one of the measure's original supporters in Congress. "You shouldn't have to choose between the family you love and the job you need."