WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of an Army veteran injured in Iraq who said he had been discriminated against by his employer, the state of Texas. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court said Congress was entitled to override states’ sovereign immunity, which generally protects them from lawsuits seeking money.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority, said that state sovereignty was a weighty interest and that Congress’s power to overcome it is limited. But he wrote that it must give way when the federal government’s power to wage war was at issue.
“Upon entering the union,” he wrote, “the states implicitly agreed that their sovereignty would yield to federal policy to build and keep a national military.”
The case concerned Le Roy Torres, a former Texas state trooper who served in the Army Reserve for almost two decades and deployed to Iraq in 2007. He said he sustained lung damage and other injuries from the burn pits the military used there to dispose of garbage, equipment and human waste by dousing those materials in jet fuel and setting them on fire, resulting in thick, black, toxic smoke.
When Mr. Torres returned to Texas, he said his medical condition did not allow him to resume his duties as a state trooper, and he asked the state for a different job. It refused, and Mr. Torres sued under a federal law, the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994, which protects veterans from job discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for their disabilities.
Similar laws protecting returning service members have been in place since World War II, but at first they did not apply to veterans employed by states. In 1974, in reaction to potential discrimination against Vietnam veterans, Congress said that states could also be sued.
That was permissible, Justice Breyer wrote, noting that “the Constitution’s text, across several articles, strongly suggests a complete delegation of authority to the federal government to provide for the common defense.”
Justice Breyer quoted Abraham Lincoln’s musings on the general matter of federal authority to raise armies.
“The power is given fully, completely, unconditionally,” Lincoln said, according to an earlier opinion. “It is not a power to raise armies if state authorities consent; nor if the men to compose the armies are entirely willing; but it is a power to raise and support armies given to Congress by the Constitution, without an ‘if.’”
Justice Breyer said the alternative would give states too much power in the realm of national security.
“If a state — or even 25 states — decided to protest a war by refusing to employ returning service members, Congress, on Texas’ telling, would be powerless to authorize private reinstatement suits against those states,” he wrote. “The potentially debilitating effect on national security would not matter.”
“We think it does matter for a simple reason,” Justice Breyer wrote. “Text, history and precedent show that the states, in coming together to form a union, agreed to sacrifice their sovereign immunity for the good of the common defense.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the majority opinion.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Kagan, who dissented in a recent sovereign immunity case, wrote that “our sovereign immunity decisions have not followed a straight line.” Whatever the outcomes in other cases, she wrote, protecting the federal government’s war powers justified an intrusion on state sovereign immunity.
In other cases, the Supreme Court has imposed strict limits on Congress’s ability to override such immunity. In a pair of decisions from the 1990s, the court said that the 11th Amendment banned lawsuits against states for money in federal courts even when Congress had authorized them.
In 1996, for instance, in Seminole Tribe v. Florida, the court struck down a federal law authorizing Indian tribes to sue states over disputes concerning casinos.
The court has taken various approaches to the question, striking down laws allowing suits against states for patent and copyright infringement but ruling that bankruptcy presented unique issues and that the federal government could delegate its power of eminent domain to private parties even when state property was at issue.
In dissent in Wednesday’s decision, Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety, No. 20-603, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, quoting an earlier decision, that “the ‘history, practice, precedent and the structure of the Constitution’ all demonstrate that states did not surrender their sovereign immunity in their own courts when Congress legislates pursuant to one of its war powers.”
Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett joined Justice Thomas’s dissent, which said the majority had erred in denying states “the dignity owed to them in our system of dual federalism.”
“Our sovereign states,” Justice Thomas wrote, “deserved better.”