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Supreme Court Considers Detainee Rights, Maternity Leave Limits

December 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Supreme Court heard arguments in cases testing the rights of terror suspects to sue high-level administration officials and the limits of maternity leave in the workplace. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal recaps the day in the high court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The justices today considered two cases involving the disparate issues of the war on terror and pregnancy discrimination. Here to walk us through both arguments is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Marcia, thank you for being with us again.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: My pleasure, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First, the Iqbal case. Now, this is a case brought by the Pakistani immigrant who was picked up by police, by the feds after 9/11. Tell us about that one.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct. Mr. Iqbal was held in a detention facility in Brooklyn, New York. He first was arrested on non-terrorism-related charges, nonviolent federal criminal charges, was transferred to the Brooklyn detention facility which held suspects of high interest, deemed of high interest to the government, in its post-9/11 investigation.

He was kept in solitary confinement for nearly six months. And he claimed that, while there, he suffered serious physical and verbal abuse.

After he was released, he sued Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller. He — and others, actually, other government officials.

He claimed that they violated constitutional rights by adopting and implementing a policy of confining people like himself in very harsh conditions solely because of their race, religion, or national origin.

The government tried to get Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller out of the lawsuit, but a lower court decided that the lawsuit could go forward because it felt that Mr. Iqbal had presented sufficient evidence that his claims were plausible and basically he could move to the next stage, which was to question government officials in order to get more evidence and information to prove his case.

The government brought the appeal to the Supreme Court, which was heard today.

Concern over distruptive litigation

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what were the justices focusing on in their questions?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, it appeared as though a majority of the justices was very concerned about calling high-ranking cabinet or other government officials into court to give evidence or explain their actions after they've implemented a legitimate policy or a policy implemented and conceived after a national crisis.

The government argued today that Mr. Iqbal had to show an affirmative, substantive link between what was happening in the field and Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller and that Iqbal had not shown that. Without that substantive link, he warned, yes, high-ranking officials would be drawn into many cases and the efficient operation of government would be undermined.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Marcia, our understanding is that, whatever they rule on this, it could have far-ranging implications for other cases.

MARCIA COYLE: It could. As Mr. Iqbal's attorney pointed out, you know, he said this was not an ad hoc decision case, that there was a clear policy here, and the downside of a ruling in favor of the government, he and others have said, is that people with legitimate or really any kind of claim of abuse of government power or violation of constitutional rights by government officials could be precluded from having their day in court.

On the other hand, the court was concerned about, you know, where do you -- you know, what kind of burden do you impose here on somebody who's making that claim and yet, at the same time, keep high-ranking government officials from becoming enmeshed in lengthy litigation?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, there are other terror suspects. Those cases out there...

MARCIA COYLE: There are. In fact, there are a number of pending cases. I think that several thousand men were part of the roundup after post-9/11. Not all have sued. But there are pending cases that will be affected by this decision.

The issue of retroactivity

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Marcia, the other case, completely different. This is a group of women who worked for AT&T back over a number of decades, have filed suit against the company over pregnancy leave and how it was counted in their benefits.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, Noreen Hulteen is the first name in this lawsuit. But she and other women took pregnancy leave when they worked for AT&T between 1968 and 1976. And that period's important, because it was before Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which took effect in 1979.

At the time they took their pregnancy leave, AT&T had a policy that it wouldn't give full service credit for pregnancy leave. It gave a maximum of 30 days, which was counted towards your seniority. But for non-pregnancy-related disability leaves, it gave full service credit.

When the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted, AT&T changed its policy to give full service credit for pregnant leave, but it did not adjust the credits for the women who took leave prior to the discrimination law's enactment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this is a retroactive issue, a retroactivity...

MARCIA COYLE: That is the claim by -- that is the claim by AT&T. AT&T says that, if you hold us liable for what we did prior to the 1979 law, which was discrimination, but it was legal discrimination, you're making the law retroactive, and there's nothing in the law that says Congress intended it to be retroactive.

Ms. Hulteen's attorneys say there is no retroactive effect here. AT&T's continued reliance on this policy, when it calculated Mrs. Hulteen's pension in 1994, is a present...

JUDY WOODRUFF: When she retired.

MARCIA COYLE: ... that's right, when she retired -- is a present violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Pensions in general may be affected

JUDY WOODRUFF: This case has been around for a while. Now, Marcia, what were the justices saying?

MARCIA COYLE: All right. It seemed a major concern of the justices here is, what impact would a ruling in favor of the women have on pensions, not only AT&T, but pensions in general? Would it unsettle the expectations, how pensions are funded, to say you could go back and correct this discrimination?

Ms. Hulteen's attorney said the impact would be minimal, that there are very few employers today who continue this type of discrimination. AT&T said there's no way to know the impact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this one of the cases, Marcia, where all the justices were engaged and asking questions? Or -- I mean, how did you read it that way?

MARCIA COYLE: I'd say most of them were engaged. Justice Ginsburg was a very active questioner at the beginning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The only woman on the court.

MARCIA COYLE: That's true. The problem for the court that Justice Souter sort of defined here is that there are two different lines of cases, earlier decisions by the Supreme Court. One line of cases would favor AT&T; the other would favor the women. And the problem for the court is to see, where does this particular case really fit?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And did they -- in the discussion, was that answered?

MARCIA COYLE: No, I don't think it was answered at all. And there are many issues involved in this case. And I think, although my feeling was that the court was leaning towards AT&T, I'm not really sure. And I usually don't predict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we're not going to ask you to today.

MARCIA COYLE: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia Coyle, thanks so much.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.