Monday, June 9, 2008

Arriverderci "Persons, Not Groups"

The U.S. Supreme Court has held in Anup Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture (June 9, 2008) that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution does not even apply to claims by government employees that the government has treated just one employee unequally and irrationally (as opposed, for example to discriminating against a larger class of employees, such as those of a particular race or sex). The majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, and Alito) purports to adhere to past pronouncements that the Equal Protection Clause protects "persons, not groups" and confers an individual right. The majority Justices thus carved out an exception from the general equal protection principle, recognized by the Court in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, that government violates equal protection where it "intentionally treat[s an individual] differently from others similarly situated and ... there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment."

The Court's ruling in Engquist that equal protection does not even apply to such "class of one" claims in the government employment setting is driven by a worry about the prospect of every government employee grievance spawning potential constitutional litigation against employers. Justice Stevens's dissent (joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg) argues forcefully that experience shows no need to create such an ad hoc exemption from equal protection principles, certainly not as broad a rule as stated in the majority opinion. And if the majority felt so strongly about the policy basis for its holding, perhaps it would have been more prudent for them to attribute it to the federal law authorizing suits for constitutional violations, Title 42 of the United States Code, section 1983, which could be changed by a Congress that disagreed with its worried, rather than to distort its interpretation of the Constitution itself (which the majority reaffirms binds government even when government acts as an employer), which is beyond legislative correction without satisfaction of the supermajority requirements of constitutional amendment.

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