Wednesday, May 17, 2017
On Monday, the Supreme Court asked the Solicitor General to weigh in on the issue presented for cert. in Clark v. Virginia Department of State Police, 292 Va. 725 (2016): whether Congress can use its war powers to abrogate state sovereign immunity. This case involves a police officer who alleged that he was denied a promotion because of his service in the U.S. Army Reserves, in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). USERRA is the current version of earlier military employment protections originally enacted in 1940 and expanded and modified many times in the intervening years. Among other things, USERRA prohibits employment discrimination against individuals because of their military service and guarantees reemployment rights following such service (for those interested in family leave reform, USERRA provides an example of more robust protections, including periods of just cause protection and promotion rights).
In 1998, Congress enacted an amendment to USERRA expressly permitting private rights of action against state employers in state court. This was an understandable reaction to the Supreme Court's 1996 Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida decision, where it held that Congress' attempt to abrogate states' 11th Amendment sovereign immunity against private rights of action for monetary remedies was invalid. It was largely assumed at the time that because the 11th Amendment only spoke of federal jurisdiction state courts could still be used, but the Court in Alden v. Maine (1999) later gave states immunity in their own courts, explaining that state sovereign immunity was part of the Constitution's design and not limited to the text of the 11th Amendment. USERRA's amendment, therefore, was then called into question and resulted in several court rulings finding it unconstitutional. These rulings, in my opinion, are wrong.
I wrote directly about this issue in Can Congress Use its War Powers to Protect Military Employees from State Sovereign Immunity?, 34 Seton Hall L. Rev. 999 (2004). In the article, which also provides an overview of USERRA and a now-dated survey of state-law military employment protections, I argue that Supreme Court precedent allows for USERRA's abrogation of state sovereign immunity. The very brief version of my argument is that courts have misread some admittedly loose language by the Supreme Court suggesting that Congress can never use Article I to abrogate state sovereign immunity. By delving into the history of state sovereign immunity and the federal war powers under the plan of the Constitution, I argued that not only can Congress use its war powers to abrogate, but the case is particularly strong in this area, despite being under Article I. This argument was subsequently validated in part by Central Virginia Community College v. Katz (2006), in which the Court held that states "agreed in the plan of the Convention not to assert any sovereign immunity defense they might have had in proceedings brought pursuant to 'Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies.'” My argument, very simply, is that if Congress can use its bankruptcy power to abrogate then surely it can use its war powers as well.
By asking for the Solicitor General's views in Clark, it appears that some Justices agree that the issue is not as straightforward as the Virginia Supreme Court in Clark, and other courts, have suggested. This is an important issue. We have sent many military personnel into active duty across the world over the last several years and have numerous others who are members of the Reserves or National Guard. Many of these military individuals are employed by states that do not allow private military employment discrimination actions for monetary damages (the police officer in Clark is a typical example). Hopefully, the Court will grant cert. and clarify this issue.