RAY SUAREZ: The Supreme Court issued a decision and heard arguments in cases involving states rights today. By a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that states could not be sued in federal court by public employees who say they are victims of age bias. The court also heard oral arguments in a case focused on whether Congress can enact a law allowing rape victims to sue their attackers in federal court. We get more on today's court action from NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, national legal affairs correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. And, Jan, there are something like 5 million state employees across the country. What does today's decision mean to them?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: It means that they can no longer turn to federal law to seek back pay or any kind of monetary damages if they believe that they've been the victims of age bias. Instead they must turn to the state law that would prohibit age discrimination and sue the state agency in a state court.
RAY SUAREZ: But, did they argue previously when this came before the court that it's hard to seek redress from the very institution that you think has wronged you?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. And that's what the lawyers were saying after today's ruling as well. The lawyers for the state employees involved in these cases, a lawyer for the AARP (American Association for Retired People) who I spoke with, said that, look, we cannot rely on states to enforce these laws.
Yes, most ... all states have anti-age discrimination provisions in place, but if we rely on states, we would have virtually no federal laws. And the states' laws are inconsistent. The AARP, for example, said that California and Washington, D.C., have very protective laws that would protect employees' rights. Other states, and the AARP specifically mentioned Alabama, have laws that would not serve state employees nearly as well. So they say that not only are states incapable of fully protecting employees' rights but that the laws are very inconsistent. And that's why the federal remedy was necessary.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what was the justices' reasoning in their decision?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The justices, and as you say, in the 5-4 decision which was written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said that Congress simply had no authority under the Constitution to authorize these kinds of private lawsuits by state employees against states. They pointed to the Constitution's 11th Amendment which provides that states are immune from lawsuits, and they said Congress, in this case, couldn't try to override that state immunity and allow state employees to haul states into court.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, there have been a lot of 5-4 votes on cases involving just these kinds of matters: The power of the states versus the enumerated powers of the federal government. What's the pattern here?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, this is an issue that has captivated this court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. And we've seen it in the last 10 or 15 years. The court has increasingly protected states' rights and tipped the balance of power more toward the states vis-à-vis their relationship with the federal government. Last term, for example, there was a series of very dramatic rulings that curtailed Congress's power to authorize private lawsuits in other areas. They've picked up the ball, you know, right again this term. This is an issue that completely captivates this court, that this court feels very passionately about, and they appear to have five justices who are going to go along with some of these rulings to scale back Congress's power and give more power to the states which they say is important. States are closer to the elected people and there are areas that states should just be concerned with and not the federal government.
RAY SUAREZ: But didn't the federal government take on a lot of its powers in these kinds of matters during the civil rights era, when it was seen that states would not protect variants of its own citizens?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Certainly, and some of those laws, I mean, for example, race discrimination laws were not under attack and really are not implicated by the ruling today. Justice O'Connor, her opinion made very clear that intentional race discrimination, intentional sex discrimination still is illegal and Congress does have the authority to override the state's immunity from lawsuits and that state employees can still sue state agencies if they're the victims of race or sex discrimination, but Congress, age discrimination, she says, is on a different level. It doesn't deserve quite the heightened protection that race and sex do. So Congress can't come in and increase the protection for age discrimination.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's move on to today's arguments. In a slightly different kind of states' rights case -- this involving Christy Brzonkala -- tell us about it.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, this case gets to the heart of Congress's power to pass a law at all, to interfere ... the case we just talked about, as we said, involves Congress's power to authorize lawsuits against states. The case that was argued today involves Congress's power to get involved in certain areas that traditionally have been handled by the states. At issue is a law, the Violence Against Women Act, that enables -- a provision which enables people, victims of gender-motivated violence to sue their attackers in federal court for damages. A student at Virginia Tech, Christy Brzonkala, sued under the law claiming that two men who she alleged raped her should be made to pay for their crime. A lower federal appeals court said Congress exceeded its authority when it passed the law and threw out the suit. And that's the case that was before the justices today.
RAY SUAREZ: So this argument began in effect right after the court took its seats and said to the assembled audience, "We're ruling in favor of the states on this previous case."
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That's right. And it actually was somewhat dramatic because Justice O'Connor has been seen as kind of a critical swing vote. And, as I said, there was a five-justice majority in these cases and opponents of some of this jurisprudence have hoped they could pull O'Connor over to their side. They hoped to do that in the first case, the age discrimination case and they certainly hoped to do it in the Violence Against Women Act case and advocates were planning to almost tailor their arguments to try and get her vote to say that, no, Congress didn't go too far and yes, this was important for women that Congress passed this law. So what do we have? We have the advocates sitting there ready to argue the Violence Against Women Act case when it's announced that Justice O'Connor will announce the opinion for the court in the other states' rights case, and it becomes clear that she feels quite strongly that states' rights, at least in that instance, are to be preserved.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, we should be clear here. At issue is not, in fact, whether or not Ms. Brzonkala was really raped.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No. The facts are not at issue in this case. Of course, that was allegations. And what we're getting at is whether or not she has a suit at all, regardless of what the facts are. So this case was thrown out before they even got to what the merits of the case are.
RAY SUAREZ: So if, let's say, a ruling was to come in her favor, that would restore the Violence Against Women Act in his original form?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: This provision of it would allow women or anyone who is the victim of a gender-motivated attack to sue their attackers for damages in federal court. That's just one provision of the act. That's the only one that's under challenge.
RAY SUAREZ: Because some of the advocates for Ms. Brzonkala said, yes, this case is kind of complicated, but this is a wide-ranging ruling if it comes down against her. Why?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it could have tremendous implications for just the role of Congress in passing a host of federal laws. The justices were quite concerned about that today, and some of them expressed -- even Justice O'Connor expressed doubt that Congress should be interfering in these areas.
For example, they said if Congress could get involved in these kinds of sexual assault laws and they could pass general criminal laws, Justice O'Connor said, if this is allowed, Congress can pass general federal divorce laws, alimony laws, contractual disputes. And those, she suggested and some of the other justices suggested by their tone are better left handled by the states. So, that was some of the justices' concerns about the ... allowing this law to stand. But the more liberal justices and the advocates for Christy Brzonkala say that this law and other laws are very important.
This is a national issue. Congress is responding to a national problem: Violence against women is a very serious issue that they cite statistics that it costs $3 to $5 billion in decreased productivity in the workplace. It's a serious economic problem. And so they had some strong arguments about the economic problems.
RAY SUAREZ: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thanks for coming by.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thanks.