Waterstone is guest blogging this month at PrawfsBlawg, on which this piece first appeared.
The Supreme Court announced its decision today in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland. For reasons I will explain below, I disagree with the plurality decision and think it is one of a growing trend of harmful and indefensible "new federalism" decisions. Spoiler alert: I think Justice Scalia makes a fine point about this jurisprudence in his concurring opinion.
First, the facts: Plaintiff had sued his state employer for damages, alleging that it violated the "self-care" part of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles an employee to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave per year for the employee's own serious health condition. In Nevada v. Hibbs, the Court had upheld the constitutionality of suits for damages against states for FMLA's "family care" provisions, which guarantee unpaid leave for the care of a newborn child, adoption or foster care placement of a child, or care of a spouse, son, daughter, or parent with a serious medical condition. But in Coleman, the Court held that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority with the "self-care" provision. Accordingly, the state is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity and the plaintiff's suit for damages is dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds.
In Coleman, the Court held that unlike the family care provision, the self-care provision failed the apparently now sacrosanct City of Boerne congruence and proportionality standard. Under this standard, the Court will assess the evil or wrong Congress attempted to remedy and the means Congress adopted to address that evil. Legislation enacted under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment must be targeted at conduct transgressing the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive provisions and the Court must find that there is congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to achieve that end.