Justices tell lower courts to review suits against states for equal pay

Use of 1963 federal law against state governments questioned by high court

January 19, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court raised the prospect yesterday that women who work for state government agencies, colleges and universities may no longer be allowed to use a federal law to try to gain equal pay.

The justices ordered two federal appeals courts to reconsider rulings that had permitted such claims under the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

The lower courts must now weigh whether Congress had authority to apply the law to state governments in cases where differences in pay are based on a state worker's sex.

In recent years, the court has moved to protect state governments from being sued to carry out laws passed by Congress. It has only lately begun to apply that approach to congressional laws that seek to end discrimination in various forms.

In ordering lower courts to re-examine the Equal Pay Act cases, the justices told them to apply a Supreme Court ruling, issued last week, that barred lawsuits against the states by older workers who say they were victims of age discrimination on the job.

Though last week's ruling and yesterday's orders involved two different federal laws, the new orders made it appear that the justices are broadly questioning the power of Congress to pass discrimination laws that allow workers to sue to try to force state agencies to meet federal employment standards.

The decision in the age bias case made clear that the justices will allow states to be sued by individuals for discrimination only when the federal law involved has been passed to protect rights specifically guaranteed by the clause in the Constitution's 14th Amendment that mandates equality.

Congress has the power, under that amendment, to outlaw discrimination based on sex. But it is not clear that Congress relied upon that authority when it passed the Equal Pay Act.

Rather, it might have relied only on its authority to pass laws to regulate commerce. The Supreme Court has since ruled, however, that that authority may not be used to permit lawsuits against state governments.

Martha F. Davis, legal director of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund, said she thought the court had sent the cases back to lower courts to obtain "more of an analysis" of the exact authority Congress used in adopting the Equal Pay Act.

Inmates with HIV, Quakers

In another significant action yesterday, the justices cleared the way for state prisons to segregate inmates who have the human immunodeficiency virus, even if they have no solid evidence that the infection will spread to other prisoners or to prison guards and staff members.

The policy, which applies to every HIV-positive inmate who enters prison in Alabama, was challenged by inmates with that virus. They contended that the policy violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against them without proof of a risk that the virus will spread.

As a result of the HIV inmates' segregation, they are denied access to dozens of programs and jobs in the prisons -- from kitchen work to sports tournaments.

A federal appeals court upheld the segregation policy in April, saying that prison officials could rely upon the possibility that the virus would be transmitted, without evidence of actual transmission, to justify the segregation.

The justices made no comment in turning aside the inmates' appeal.

The court, denying review in several cases, also refused to interfere with police use of a pain-causing device to force a resisting suspect to submit to giving a blood sample or other form of search.

In addition, the justices declined to hear a group of Quakers' challenge to tax penalties and interest for delaying their payment of federal income taxes out of protest over federal military spending.

They also refused to reinstate a lawsuit -- thrown out by a lower court -- that claimed ABC-TV's "Prime Time Live" secretly -- and illegally -- videotaped workers at a business that offered psychic advice by telephone.

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