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Supreme Court rules Texas veteran may sue to get his job back; conservative justices dissent

Supreme Court of the United States.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that an injured Iraq war veteran may sue to get his job back as a Texas state trooper in accordance with a federal law guaranteeing that returning soldiers can reclaim their government positions.

But the decision came over the dissent of four conservative justices, who said the state should have a “sovereign immunity” that shields it from such lawsuits.

The decision in Torres vs. Texas Department of Public Safety showed the court sharply divided over the powers of Congress and the rights of the states.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the three liberal justices in siding with the injured vet, whose plight is the kind that has previously united the bench.

Retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer spoke for the court in what may be his final opinion.

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At noon on Thursday, he will officially retire, and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be sworn in as the Supreme Court’s 104th associate justice and its first Black woman.

In his 28 years on the court, Breyer has regularly upheld the broad powers of Congress, particularly in the areas of war and national security.

In response to the ill treatment of vets after the Vietnam War, Breyer said Congress in 1994 gave returning veterans the right to reclaim their prior jobs with state employers and authorized lawsuits if they were refused.

The private damages suits aimed to ensure that “veterans who had previously held jobs as school teachers, policemen, firemen, and other state, county, and city employees would not be denied their old jobs as reprisal for their service,” he said.

Le Roy Torres, who enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1989, was called to active duty and deployed to Iraq in 2007.

While serving there, he was exposed to toxic burn pits and returned home with chronic breathing problems that made it difficult to return to his job as a state trooper.

He asked to be reemployed in another role, but Texas refused. He then sued the state for violating the federal law.

Texas claimed it had a sovereign immunity from such suits, and won in the Texas state courts.

But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and ruled the state may not “invoke sovereign immunity as a legal defense.”

Ruling in favor of Texas “would permit states to thwart national military readiness,” Breyer wrote. “If a state — or even 25 states — decided to protest a war by refusing to employ returning servicemembers, Congress, on Texas’ telling, would be powerless to authorize private reinstatement suits against those states. The potentially debilitating effect on national security would not matter. Text, history, and precedent show that the states, in coming together to form a union, agreed to sacrifice their sovereign immunity for the good of the common defense.”

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued for a broad view of states’ rights.

“When the states ratified the Constitution, they did not implicitly consent to private damages actions filed in their own courts — whether authorized by Congress’ war powers or any other Article I power,” he wrote.

He also faulted the majority for disregarding a precedent, in this instance a 1999 ruling that rejected a suit by probation workers against the state of Maine.

In upholding suits by vets against the state, “the court brushes aside a 23-year-old, pathbreaking precedent,” he said, and instead allows Congress “to deny states the dignity owed to them in our system of dual federalism. Our sovereign states deserved better,” he concluded.

Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett joined his dissent.

Conservative justices have tended to look skeptically at recognizing individual rights that are not spelled out in the Constitution, as seen in the recent abortion ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade.

But in this case, the four dissenting justices expressed a willingness to recognize states’ rights that are similarly not mentioned.

The Constitution does not say states are sovereign or shielded from federal laws.

Article VI says, “This Constitution and Laws of the United States ... shall be the supreme Law of the Land, and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby.”

At times, the Supreme Court has said states are immune from some legal claims. In the late 1990s, the court handed down a series of 5-4 rulings shielding states from being sued by their employees alleging discrimination based on their age or disability.

But more recently, the court has upheld suits against state agencies over bankruptcy claims and to clear the way for a pipeline across a state.

Separately, the court said it will issue this term’s final opinions on Thursday morning.

Still pending are major cases on environmental regulation and immigration.

In West Virginia vs. EPA, the coal-producing state seeks to limit the regulation of carbon pollution, while Biden vs. Texas will decide whether the Democratic administration may repeal the “Remain in Mexico” immigration policy set by the Trump administration.


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