WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, dividing 5-4, nullified all but a shred of a federal law that protects state government employees against age discrimination on the job.
For the first time, a federal civil rights law fell victim to the court majority's continuing campaign, reaching back a decade, to bolster states' rights at the expense of Congress' powers.
Congress' ban on age bias against state workers, the court said, "was an unwarranted response to a perhaps inconsequential problem."
In practical terms, the ruling means that state employees may not sue in state or federal court under federal law to claim age discrimination by their employers.
The court went further, making it clear that states may make age the decisive factor in hiring, firing or promoting their employees.
Workers in private industry will continue to be protected by the federal law.
Civil rights activists condemned the ruling.
"State employees are left with virtually no federal protection against age discrimination," said Laurie McCann, staff lawyer for the American Association of Retired Persons Foundation. The decision "relegates age discrimination protection to a second-class civil right. It has become basically a meaningless civil right," she said.
The ruling won praise from advocates of a reduced federal role.
Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs of the Cato Institute, a conservative research group, said the ruling reflects the recent trend in the court to "take seriously the division of power between federal and state governments, one of our principal protections against overweening federal power."
Civil rights advocates said other federal anti-discrimination laws might be in trouble, at least as they apply to state governments, because of yesterday's decision.
Among other laws that could be jeopardized, the advocates said, are those that protect women against sex-based violence, such as the Violence Against Women Act, those that ensure equal pay for women, those that ban disability discrimination on the job and those that require sexual equality in education programs.
The Violence Against Women Act appeared to be in trouble in the court, based on several justices' comments at a hearing yesterday on its constitutionality.
The ruling on the age-bias law was written and announced by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, one of the leaders of the court's states'-rights majority.
Congress outlawed age bias on the job in private industry in 1967 and extended that protection to state and local government employees in 1974. Yesterday's ruling dealt only with the law's coverage of state employees, barring federal or state court lawsuits by state workers alleging age bias.
The court did not nullify that protection altogether. State employees who believe they are victims of age discrimination in their agencies remain free to complain to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But that agency is typically short on money and staffing, civil rights lawyers say, and cannot carry out enforcement by itself.
State employees in Maryland and most other states could also rely on state age-bias laws. But those laws are a patchwork, varying in strength from state to state.
The court ruled that Congress had no authority to enforce the Constitution's ban on inequality in state laws by revoking the states' usual immunity, guaranteed by the 11th Amendment, to being sued without their consent for violating federal law.
For one thing, O'Connor's opinion said, because age discrimination is not forbidden by the Constitution, Congress lacked authority to treat it as if it is forbidden.
O'Connor also said that in extending the age-bias law to state workers in 1974, Congress lacked evidence that state governments were engaging in age bias against their workers.
"Congress had virtually no reason to believe that state and local governments were unconstitutionally discriminating against their employees on the basis of age," the majority opinion said.
The ruling, one of a series of decisions that have produced the same 5-4 split on states' rights, demonstrated how deep the court's philosophical dispute in that field of law has become. Justice O'Connor's opinion suggested that the unwillingness of the four dissenters to go along with the majority on state sovereignty issues "makes it difficult to engage in additional meaningful debate" on such issues.
O'Connor's opinion nullifying much of the age-bias law was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the same group of five that has voted together to shore up state powers in recent years.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the dissenters, said they would continue to oppose the majority on these issues "whenever the opportunity arises."
They will refuse, Stevens said, to follow the customary rule of judges that they are bound to support prior rulings that they did not embrace at the time they were made.
Joining him were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.
The court's ruling blocked age bias lawsuits filed by professors at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, by college librarians in Florida, and by a state prison employee in Florida. All contended that they had been treated unequally on the job because of their age.