Monday, October 7, 2013
The facts of Madigan v. Levin argued today seem simple: Levin, an attorney working for the state of Illinois as an assistant state attorney was terminated in 2006 when he was 61 years old, being replaced by a younger attorney. At least two other older attorneys were also terminated, replaced by younger attorneys.
Whether these facts, and the further facts to be determined, would substantiate a claim of age discrimination is the question to be decided on the merits. But before any consideration of the merits, there is the thorny question of the grounding of the claim. Can it be the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, ADEA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621? What about the Court's decision in Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, holding that Congress had no power to abrogate a state's Eleventh Amendment immunity when it used its Fourteenth Amendment §5 power to pass ADEA? And is Levin even an "employee" within the ADEA? And what about GERA, the Government Employee Rights Act of 1991 (Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1991), which has also run into abrogation of state immunity problems? Which is why, perhaps, Mr.Levin, even after exhausting his administrative remedies with the EEOC, sought to bring a claim under the Equal Protection Clause, using the jurisdictional statute 42 USC §1983. But the state argued that Levin's constitutional claims were precluded by the comprehensive scheme Congress had enacted to address age discrimination, the ADEA.
Affirming the district judge, the Seventh Circuit held that the ADEA did not bar a constitutional claim, with extensive analysis of the legislative history, but also reasoning in part that as a practical matter, this would mean that employees of state employers would be left without a federal damages claim because of the reasoning of Kimel. The Seveneth Circuit then ruled that the individual defendants did not enjoy qualified immunity, age discrimination being "clearly established" as a right under the Equal Protection Clause, with age classifications being scrutinized under the rational basis standard. The Seventh Circuit's opinion seemed well-reasoned, but it conflicted with the decisions of the other circuits - - - Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth - - - that had decided that ADEA precluded equal protection claims based on age.
But while the attorney for the state of Illinois, Michael Scordo, did have a chance to articulate his finely crafted opening issue statement, Justice Ginsburg asked the first question, and the complex case became even more complex:
Mr. Scodro, there's a preliminary question before we get to the question you presented, and that is: What authority did the Seventh Circuit have to deal with the question under the Age Discrimination Act? I mean, it was -- it went to the Seventh Circuit on interlocutory review.
The procedural problem - - - did the Seventh Circuit have jurisdiction and thus does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction - - - had been flagged by an amicus brief of Law Professors, including Stephen Vladeck as counsel of record, who argued that
the Seventh Circuit lacked “pendent appellate jurisdiction” on an interlocutory qualified immunity appeal to decide the question on which certiorari was granted, i.e., whether the remedial scheme created by Congress in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., displaces age-discrimination suits by state employees under the Equal Protection Clause and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
As for the United States Supreme Court? The law professors brief argued:
To be sure, as this Court’s prior decisions attest, because the Seventh Circuit had jurisdiction over the qualified immunity issue, the Supreme Court still has the power to proceed to the merits notwithstanding the pendent jurisdictional defect below. But compelling reasons of prudence, practice, and policy all favor vacating the decision below and returning this case to the district court, rather than rewarding the Court of Appeals’ jurisdictional bootstrapping.
As Justice Scalia noted, most of the oral argument was taken up with these procedural matters - - - what he labeled the "other stuff" - - - with limited discussion of the merits.
But there was some discussion of the merits. In a colloquy with Justices Alito and later Kagan, the problem with the Equal Protection Clause claim got some attention. The attorney for Levin, Edward Theobald, was pressed on whether Levin could possibly prevail given the rational basis standard. Here's a snippet:
JUSTICE ALITO: And what if the Illinois legislature passed a statute that said: Now, forget about the ADEA. There is no ADEA. There is no state anti-discrimination law involved here. All we are talking about is equal protection. And they passed a law that said: All attorneys working for the State of Illinois must retire at the age of 60, because everybody knows, you know, once a lawyer passes 60, there's nothing left.
MR. THEOBALD: We're all in trouble.
JUSTICE ALITO: Would that be -- would that survive a rational basis review?
MR. THEOBALD: I don't believe so.
Of course, the Justices would not be in trouble if Illinois passed such a law; they are not only federal employees, they have life tenure, a benefit that is not universally applauded.
And they also have the power not only to decide the case, but also to decide that they do not - - - or should not - - - have the power to do so.
[image from Vanity Fair, 1903, via]