In one of its final opinions of what has been a blockbuster of a term, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday handed down a ruling characterized as a significant victory for veterans wishing to sue state governments in certain employment contexts, as Law & Crime reports.
The 5-4 majority opinion in the case of Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety authored by Justice Stephen Breyer was issued just one day before his retirement from the bench became official, and it holds that the sovereign immunity typically enjoyed by states can be superseded by the federal government’s power to raise and support the armed forces, as the National Law Review notes.
Underlying the controversy was the story of, Iraq War veteran Le Roy Torres, who was employed by the Texas Department of Public Safety before being sent to work near “burn pits” located in the conflict zone, into which troops were known to dispose of human waste, trash, and even unwanted military equipment.
After returning from deployment, Torres was diagnosed with chronic, constrictive bronchitis, a condition that results in “irreversible airflow obstruction” and which has been found in a statistically significant number of soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The illness left Torres unable to return to the duties he once performed as a Texas state trooper, and as a result, he made a request of his former employer for a reassignment, which was denied.
Torres then filed suit against Texas pursuant to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, which requires states to make “reasonable efforts” to find equivalent or “nearest approximation” employment for individuals with foreign deployment-related disabilities that preclude a return to prior positions.
Though Texas attempted to dismiss the complaint by citing the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of Torres, declaring that by virtue of having ratified the U.S. Constitution, the states forfeited some of their immunity from private suit in light of the federal government’s obligation and power to raise armies for purposes of national defense.
While Breyer noted that states typically do enjoy immunity from suits such as Torres’ unless they have explicitly consented to litigation, if a federal power is “complete in itself, and the States consented to the exercise of that power,” they give up some of the aforementioned protection and “yield” to the requirements of the federal government.
Justice Clarence Thomas authored a dissent in which he cited a 1999 case in which the Court held that “the powers delegated to Congress under Article I of the United States Constitution do not include the power to subject nonconsenting States to private suits for damages in state courts,” but Breyer and the majority carried the day and delivered a noteworthy win to disabled veterans such as Torres.