Thursday, December 24, 2020
Forgive me for a bit of self-promotion, but I wanted to flag an amicus brief that a group affiliated with UNC Law filed with the Supreme Court supporting a petition for cert. by the Plaintiff in Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety. The question centers on war powers abrogation, specifically whether state employers retain sovereign immunity in the face of congressional war powers legislation. In Torres, that legislation is USERRA, which prohibits employment discrimination based on military service and provides leave and other benefits for servicemembers called to active duty or attending training for, e.g., National Guard. Given the huge number of active and reserve servicemembers, this is an important statute even in normal times. But it's especially so now in a year that saw the greatest mobilization of National Guard troops since Wold War II.
Le Roy Torres was a Texas State Trooper who was called into active duty in Iraq. While there, he continually breathed toxic ash that made him, in addition to thousands of other veterans, very ill. So ill, he was unable to perform his usual trooper duties when he came home. According to Torres’ claim, the Texas Dept. of Safety refused to accommodate him with a desk job, instead forcing him to resign. Torres sued under USERRA, but his employer has argued that courts can’t even hear the claim because of state sovereign immunity. The Texas courts, like several other states, have agreed with this defense. But as I’ve argued in my research, which this and an earlier amicus draws on, these courts are wrong.
I actually first wrote on this topic when I was on the entry-level market. At the time, I argued that despite dicta saying that Article I can’t ever abrogate state immunity, the Court’s historical analysis leaves the door open for certain Article I powers to allow suits against states. Under this analysis, state sovereign immunity is determined by the “plan of the [Constitutional] Convention. In my earlier article, I argued that war powers should be an exception to the “no Article I abrogation” dicta. The Court has recognized that there are exceptions to state immunity; therefore, in what might be the unofficial theme of my research, “if not war powers, then what?” In other words, if there are areas in which states lack immunity, no area has a stronger claim than war powers. Indeed, subsequent to that article, the Court held in Katz that states lacked immunity when it comes to Article I’s Bankruptcy Clause. Which leads one to ask if the Bankruptcy Clause allows suits against states, then surely war powers does too.
Prompted by an earlier Torres amicus brief I wrote while the case was being considered for cert. by the Texas Supreme Court, I revisited this issue post-Katz in my new article, War Powers Abrogation, forthcoming in the George Washington Law Review. In this article, I thoroughly examined the history of the War Powers Clauses from the Articles of Confederation period, through the Constitutional Convention and text, and then the Ratification debates. The article provides the details, but the story is crystal clear: the only reasonable reading of the “plan of the Convention” is that the Founders and states adopted the Constitution fully knowing and intending states NOT to have any sovereignty when it comes to war powers. Instead, a central feature of the Constitution was assuring that the federal government was in charge of the nation’s security, free from state interference. In short, no one during that period—even those who objected to the Constitution—thought that states could interfere with the federal government’s war powers actions, including legislation like USERRA. So far, state courts (which currently have sole jurisdiction of USERRA claims against state employers) have failed to even address this history, instead siding with state immunity claims based on outdated dicta or superficial distinguishing of Katz. Our hope is that the Supreme Court will take up the issue to correct that error. So stay tuned.
Finally, I want to thank those who have helped with this brief and research (and, fingers crossed, one supporting the merits to come). This includes my research assistant, Kemper Patton, staff on the George Washington Law Review, and the several people who helped write the amicus: Elizabeth Fisher (Wiley), Rachel Grossman (UNC Law), Andy Hessick (UNC Law); and Rick Simpson (Wiley). Also thanks to the Torres’ ever-helpful counsel, including Brian Lawler (Pilot Law) and Andrew Tutt (Arnold and Porter). And, last but not least, thanks to Le Roy Torres, his wife, and the other veterans who are trying to simply get their day in court to exercise their rights under USERRA.