Supreme Court Watch
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
RAY SUAREZ: A unanimous court ruled today that the Americans with Disabilities Act allows an employer to reject job applicants if the workplace threatens their health. The court also decided, in a 5-4 ruling, states can take away privileges from convicted sex offenders if they won’t admit to the crime as part of their therapy.
For more on these decisions, we’re joined by NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for The Chicago Tribune. Jan, first, the case of Mario Echazabal and Chevron. Remind us what that was about.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it sounds like a strange case, because the issue seems so farfetched, whether or not an employer can be required under the Americans with Disabilities Act to hire a worker if the job would put that worker in grave risk of harm or even kill the worker. That’s the issue in this case.
Mario Echazabal wanted a job at one of Chevron’s refineries in California. He applied for the job, got the job contingent on a medical exam. The medical exam showed that he had severe liver damage caused by hepatitis “C”. Chevron withdrew the offer. Now, he had been an independent contractor at the plant for about 20 years or so, and ultimately Chevron told the independent contractor to quit sending him to the job site. So he sued arguing that Chevron was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act because he was a qualified individual and Chevron had no reason not to hire him.
RAY SUAREZ: So, a 9-0 decision. What did the Justices say?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The Justices today said Chevron had a valid defense that his taking that job would pose a direct threat to “his own health or safety.” Now, what’s very important about this is that that language, “his own health or safety,” is not contained in the law. Instead, it comes from regulations passed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC in regulations said that employers need not hire someone if taking the job would put them in this risk of harm and pose a direct threat to their own health or safety. Now, his lawyer had argued at the time that the regulations should not be followed, that we should look to the law itself and the language of the law doesn’t mention that.
It just gives employers a defense if hiring a worker would cause a direct threat to the health and safety of others in the workplace. But today in their unanimous ruling by justice David Souter, the court said that the EEOC’s regulations were reasonable, and for that reason it would allow Chevron to present this defense and rule that employers did not have to hire people if doing the job, performing the job, would put that worker in a direct threat of harm or even in some cases death.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, there have been a lot of challenges that make it up to the high court regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: Are they sort of shaping, refining how the ADA is applied? Is this… is from the court emerging a sort of future shape for the ADA?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Oh, sure. I mean, the ADA has consumed the court’s attention in a dramatic way in recent terms. In fact, there were a couple of cases already this term interpreting the scope of the ADA, and many of those cases the court has looked at the definition of what it means to be disabled, for example. And disability rights groups maintain that the court is really narrowing the scope of the ADA. For example, this term it ruled in a case involving a woman with carpal tunnel syndrome that the ADA wouldn’t apply in a broad range of cases, narrowing the scope and rejecting her arguments. This case was a little different because everyone agreed that Mr. Echazabal was, in fact, disabled and that the ADA would apply to him, but the issue here was be that as it may could Chevron present this defense?
Now, in the court’s ruling today Justice Souter picked up on what was a very real concern of business groups, and that was, you know, if they hire the person, then they’re opening themselves up to big trouble in other areas. How would they, for example, follow certain health and safety statutes– OSHA requirements, for example– to keep a safe workplace if they’re being forced to hire someone and the very nature of the job would put that person in jeopardy? They also, the business community also was very worried about hiring a person, the person being harmed on the job just as they believe could be foreseen, and then his family coming back and filing a lawsuit at some point in the future.
Now, the disabilities rights community say that business has greatly overstated the problem here, and they said that this isn’t about hiring people who want to do jobs that are going to hurt them or kill them. No one ever wants to do that. In the vast majority of the cases, 99 times out of 100, this is about an employer who says “I think this job might be bad for you.” And the worker says, “No it’s not, I’m not in that bad of shape.” And they have a disagreement. Disabilities rights advocates say that the employer always errs on the side of caution whereas the worker would never put himself harm’s way. They maintain it should be up to the worker.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s move to the other case, Robert Lyle in prison for rape. Take it from there.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: He was convicted in… he was convicted of the 1982 rape of a high school student, sent to prison in Kansas. In 1994, a few years before he was scheduled to be released, he was ordered to participate in a Kansas sex offender treatment program. As part of the program he had to sign an admission of responsibility and fill out a form listing some of his sexual activities in the past and then he would be subjected to a lie detector test. He refused to participate in this program.
State officials said that they would then withhold many privileges, his ability to work and visit… have visitation rights, and they were going to put him back in a maximum security unit. He said that violated his Fifth Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination. He maintained that he did not rape this high school girl, that the sex was consensual, and so by forcing him to admit and take responsibility for this crime and participate in the program he would be forced to incriminate himself and that, he said, violated his constitutional rights.
RAY SUAREZ: This was a 5-4 ruling.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. The lower courts agreed with Mr. Lyle, but today in a… in one opinion by Justice Kennedy the court sided with the state of Kansas. Now, five of the Justices, the more conservative Justices, agreed that Kansas’ program did not violate the Constitution, but they could not come together on the reasoning. Four Justices, led by Justice Kennedy, said that the program was constitutional and that all Kansas was doing was just withholding some privileges, basically implying that they weren’t that serious. Justice O’Connor wrote separately. She didn’t necessarily agree with everything Justice Kennedy had to say and then the four dissents and a dramatic dissent by Justice Stevens wrote separately, the more liberal justices, and expressed grave reservations about the majority ruling, calling this a watershed case, that the court for the first time said someone could be subject to penalties because they believed the privileges were not privileged, but in fact, the state was punishing these people if they didn’t participate.
RAY SUAREZ: And the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that you can’t be coerced…
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Compelled to incriminate yourself.
RAY SUAREZ: To testify against yourself.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And they said in their opinion that is exactly what was happening in this case.
RAY SUAREZ: Does this have wider ramifications beyond the life of Robert Lyle?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Absolutely, because many states have these treatment programs. Justice Kennedy in his opinion noted the federal government also has a treatment program. He even suggested that had the court ruled the other way that the federal sentencing guidelines in which judges can depart downward from the sentences if an inmate… a defendant acknowledges guilt, takes responsibility, that that could come into question. So, sure, it will have a broad impact. And also, it looks again and shines some light, I think, on state’s efforts to keep track of sex offenders. Next term the court has already agreed to hear a case that looks at some of these state registries. The state is trying to keep tabs on people moving into neighbors.
RAY SUAREZ: The so-called Megan’s Law?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, and this would be a variation of that. It’s a very big issue and one we’ll hear more about next term.
RAY SUAREZ: Jan Crawford Greenburg from The Chicago Tribune, thanks a lot for being with us.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you.