(CN) – Former civil servants who were ousted because they never registered for the military draft can pursue sexual-discrimination claims, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Under the law, male U.S. citizens who fail to the register for selective military service between the ages of 18 and 26 are barred from certain government jobs.
But Michael Elgin, Aaron Lawson, Henry Tucker and Christon Colby challenged the law as discriminatory because it applies only to men and not women. They filed a federal complaint over the issue in Massachusetts.
In fighting jurisdiction, the U.S. government claimed that such cases must first reach a merits board, then face appeal in the Federal Circuit, under the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA).
Concluding otherwise, the District of Massachusetts claimed jurisdiction over the case and then dismissed it on the merits.
But the 1st Circuit said that holding was in error, and it ordered the lower court to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction on remand.
The Supreme Court agreed with that position, 6-3, on Monday.
“Nothing in the CSRA’s text suggests that its exclusive review scheme is inapplicable simply because a covered employee challenges a covered action on the ground that the statute authorizing that action is unconstitutional,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “As the government correctly notes, ‘[t]he plain language of [the CSRA’s] provisions applies to an employee who challenges his removal on the ground that the statute requiring it is unconstitutional no less than it applies to an employee who challenges his removal on any other ground.’
“In only one situation does the CSRA expressly exempt a covered employee’s appeal of a covered action from Federal Circuit review based on the type of claim at issue. When a covered employee ‘alleges that a basis for the action was discrimination’ prohibited by enumerated federal employment laws, the CSRA allows the employee to obtain judicial review of an unfavorable MSPB [Merit Systems Protection Board] decision by filing a civil action as provided by the applicable employment law.”
The holding also has support in the law’s intent, according to the 20-page opinion.
“The CSRA’s objective of creating an integrated scheme of review would be seriously undermined if, as petitioners would have it, a covered employee could challenge a covered employment action first in a district court, and then again in one of the courts of appeals, simply by alleging that the statutory authorization for such action is unconstitutional,” Thomas wrote. “Such suits would reintroduce the very potential for inconsistent decisionmaking and duplicative judicial review that the CSRA was designed to avoid. Moreover, petitioners’ position would create the possibility of parallel litigation regarding the same agency action before the MSPB and a district court. An employee could challenge the constitutionality of the statute authorizing an agency’s action in district court, but the MSPB would remain the exclusive forum for other types of challenges to the agency’s decision.”
Justices Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan partnered on 13-page dissent.
“The problem with the majority’s reasoning is that petitioners’ constitutional claims are a far cry from the type of claim that Congress intended to channel through the board,” Alito wrote for the minority. “The board’s mission is to adjudicate fact-specific employment disputes within the existing statutory framework. By contrast, petitioners argue that one key provision of that framework is facially unconstitutional. Not only does the board lack authority to adjudicate facial constitutional challenges, but such challenges are wholly collateral to the type of claims that the board is authorized to hear.
“The majority attempts to defend its holding by noting that, although the board cannot consider petitioners’ claims, petitioners may appeal from the board to the Federal Circuit, which does have authority to address facial constitutional claims. But that does not cure the oddity of requiring such claims to be filed initially before the board, which can do nothing but pass them along unaddressed, leaving the Federal Circuit to act as a court of first review, but with little capacity for factfinding.
“Because I doubt that Congress intended to channel petitioners’ constitutional claims into an administrative tribunal that is powerless to decide them, I respectfully dissent.”