Court rulings putting evolved rights at risk

February 08, 2000|By TOM TEEPEN

DUMB AND HAPPY, most of us have been bopping through life on the blithe assumption that our American citizenship came with oodles of legal and constitutional rights and that if anyone tried to mess with them, we could turn to the very nation itself, as represented by the federal courts, to stand up for us.

Silly us. The U.S. Supreme Court in recent years, with a particularly busy hammer over the past year, has been tearing down that protection. And the political system, especially the Republican Congress but abetted at the margins by President Clinton, has been adding legislative wallop to the reactionary turn to state's rights.

A number of bills were at play last year to let state and local governments override federal regulations they don't fancy. Expect more this year. One, enacted in 1996 and signed by Clinton, is freeing state prisons and local jails from federal-court oversight. Prisoners are being returned to the mercy of the sometimes merciless, with diminished resort to a national standard of decency.

But the most energetic retreat from nationhood has been in the Supreme Court, usually by a 5-4 call.

The Supreme Court last month told lower federal courts in Illinois and New York to rethink rulings that states and state agencies must abide by a 1963 federal law requiring employers to pay men and women equally for equal work.

The justices cited their ruling of the previous week that state workers aren't protected by the federal law banning age discrimination.

Usually invoking the Constitution's 11th Amendment and sovereign immunity, the high court since 1992 has eaten away at Congress' power to revoke state immunity. Congress may now do so, it appears, only on constitutional, not statutory, matters.

The court held last year that Congress can't subject the states to lawsuits for patent violations.

It has implied that federal fair-labor standards -- for minimum wage, overtime pay rules -- are doubtful. Similar challenges are under way against the Violence Against Women, Medical Leave and Americans With Disabilities acts.

The narrow court majority is dusting off doctrines and interpretations that had been gathering cobwebs in the legal attic since the late 1930s, reverting to an antagonism toward national government that had seemed definitively retired in favor of an understanding that Congress has broad powers to act in the national interest.

Arguments over how power should be shared between Washington and the states are as old as the nation and periodic fine-turning is fine. The court would do well to haul the politically grandstanding Congress back from federalizing what should be state and local crimes, like car jacking.

It is quite another matter, however, to take back evolved protections for individual rights -- and into the bargain hamper pragmatic economic unity in a globalizing economy -- in the name of an 18th-century political ideology that was argued to an uncertain standoff even in its own time.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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