Supreme Court Narrows Protections for Public Employees

In a 6-3 ruling on June 9, the Supreme Court made it harder for public employees who are victims of arbitrary or malicious firings to obtain justice. In doing so, the Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, rejected an approach followed by nine federal appellate courts that had allowed a public employee who is arbitrarily treated differently from other similarly situated employees to bring an equal protection claim under the 14th Amendment, even if that employee had not been discriminated against because of membership in a particular class (e.g., African Americans or women).

Those courts had held that membership in a "class of one" is sufficient in the public employment context to invoke the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment, which protect "any person." Chief Justice Roberts was joined in this opinion by the other conservative members of the Court (Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas), as well as by Justice Breyer.

Justice Stevens wrote a sharp dissent, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg, accusing the majority of "carv[ing] a novel exception out of state employees' constitutional rights." According to the dissent, "[e]ven if some surgery were truly necessary to prevent governments from being forced to defend a multitude of equal protection 'class of one' claims, the Court should use a scalpel rather than a meat-axe." Instead, in the words of Justice Stevens, the Court had "adopt[ed] an unnecessarily broad rule that tolerates arbitrary and irrational decisions in the employment context."

PFAW