Justices issue ruling on compensatory time

Government agencies may tell workers when to use it, high court says

May 02, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that state and local governments may force employees to use up compensatory time earned for overtime work, rather than letting them save it to use when they want.

Dividing 6-3, the court ruled that a 1985 law allowing state and local governments to reward overtime with time off rather than with cash also permits them to dictate when workers must use that time.

The majority rejected the Labor Department's argument that public agencies may not order that time off be taken unless their workers have agreed in advance.

The ruling applies only to state and local government employees. The 1985 law did not change the requirement of federal wage and hour law that private industry workers be given the option of being paid cash for overtime.

State and local agencies are free, under federal wage and hour law, to pay workers for overtime. But they did not want to be required to do so, fearing that the cost would be too heavy a burden. Congress obliged by letting them opt to compensate with time off instead.

The sole issue before the court yesterday was who could choose when the time would be used -- supervisors or workers. The court said the law leaves the choice to supervisors.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority ruling, said the law "says nothing about restricting an employer's efforts to require employees to use compensatory time."

Lower courts had been split on the issue, and yesterday's ruling ends that conflict. The issue arose in a case involving 129 deputy sheriffs in Harris County, Texas, who wanted the right to choose when they took time off, so long as doing so did not disrupt their agency's work. They lost in a lower federal court and took the issue to the Supreme Court.

Ex post facto ruling

In another decision yesterday, the court by a 5-4 vote dealt a blow to victims' rights, barring the enforcement in some cases of a new Texas law that allows a conviction to be based solely on the crime victim's testimony. The law cannot be applied, the court said, to crimes committed earlier, when the law required additional evidence beyond the victim's testimony for a conviction.

It violates the Constitution's ban on ex post facto laws, the court said, to make it easier to win a conviction than it would have been if the law in effect when the crime was committed had been followed.

The decision overturned four of 15 guilty verdicts against Scott Leslie Carmell of Denton County, Texas, for sexual assaults on his stepdaughter when she was younger than age 16.

Court to hear search case

In a separate order, the court agreed to decide, at its term beginning in October, whether it is unconstitutional for police to bar a person from entering his home while officers wait for a search warrant to look for drugs or other evidence inside.

The case involves a 1997 incident in Sullivan, Ill., where officers barred a man for nearly two hours from entering his trailer home without an officer to accompany him. It took that long for the officers to obtain a warrant to search for marijuana, based on a tip from the man's wife.

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