Broader Take Upheld on Family Leave Law

Times Staff Writer

Changing course slightly, the Supreme Court rejected a states’ right claim Tuesday and upheld a federal law that gives employees -- including state workers -- a right to take unpaid leave to care for a sick relative.

The 6-3 decision, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, preserves a popular law championed by President Clinton and congressional Democrats.

The outcome left supporters of the law surprised and relieved.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of the 1993 measure, called the decision “a welcome victory for the 5 million hard-working women and men who serve the public as state employees. It’s also a clear vindication of the power of Congress to grant the basic protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act to all employees.”


Under the law, workers who have been on the job for more than a year are entitled to take as much as 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually to care for a seriously ill family member.

Congress said it was concerned that working women were often put at a disadvantage because they had greater duties at home. If a child got sick, they felt a duty to stay home, lawmakers said.

Employers who refused to give a worker the requested leave could be sued for violating the federal law.

Before the mid-1990s, no one would have questioned whether Congress could enforce such a law nationwide. The Constitution says Congress has the power to “regulate commerce,” and the workplace is seen as a commercial endeavor.


But in 1996, the Rehnquist court revived the 19th century notion that the states had a “sovereign immunity” that shielded them from being sued, even when they violated a federal law.

This led to a series of 5-4 rulings that limited the rights of the nearly 5 million employees who work for state agencies, hospitals and public colleges and universities. For example, state workers who were denied the overtime pay required by federal law were told they could not sue the state to obtain their money.

But Congress’ power is not limited to matters of commerce. The 14th Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, forbids states from discriminating on account of race or sex.

In the past, Rehnquist had written decisions saying states could be sued for race or gender bias, and that Congress had special powers to stop such discrimination.


In Tuesday’s opinion, the chief justice upheld a Nevada state worker’s suit under the Family and Medical Leave Act on the grounds that Congress was seeking to remedy a kind of gender bias.

The measure “aims to protect the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in the workplace,” Rehnquist said. It “attacks the formerly state-sanctioned stereotype that only women are responsible for family care-giving.”

He was joined by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who usually joins him in upholding states’ rights claim. Meanwhile, the court’s four liberal-leaning justices, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and John Paul Stevens, agreed that the law was entirely constitutional.

The dissenters, Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said they were not convinced the law dealt with true discrimination. They would have ruled that state agencies were shielded from being sued for violations.