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August 11, 2003

Illinois: Please Sue Us for Discrimination

In a series of cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that state governments could not be sued by their employees for age discrimination, discrimination against the disabled, and a range of other federal laws protecting private sector workers. See Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001) for the arguments by the Court and the dissent.

Well, Illinois's governor just signed a law waiving the "sovereign immunity" under the 11th Amendment that the rightwing Court had said protected states from those lawsuits. From BNA Daily Labor Report (subscription needed so no link):

H.B. 469 specifically provides protections to state workers guaranteed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the ADA and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In addition, H.B. 469 provides state workers with all rights provided under the Fair Labor Standards Act. H.B. 469, which now is known as Public Act 93-414, permits state workers aggrieved by conduct illegal under these federal statutes to bring suits in either state circuit court or federal court.
And a reminder that unions are usually in the forefront of pushing through civil rights legislation:
Linc Cohen, a spokesman for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, said his union aggressively lobbied for the bill during the spring legislative session. He said the 40,000 state workers represented by Council 31 already have many of these protections, but legislative change was needed to backstop current bargaining rights and protect the thousands of state workers unrepresented by unions.

"In some respects, this isn't a big development for our members because they have most of these rights built into their contracts. But it's always good to have the law backing up your bargaining rights," Cohen said. "The law is also beneficial to the thousands of state employees who are not members of AFSCME. These are not new rights, but restored rights -- things state employees thought they had until the Supreme Court expressed otherwise."

As importantly, Illinois passed a second law (signed by the governor) to overturn another "states rights" case by the Supreme Court that had said states using federal money could use it in ways that discriminate against groups -- what is known as disparate impact discrimination -- and not be subject to lawsuit. This overturned Alexander v. Sandoval, 69 121 S. Ct. 1511 (2001).

Other states should push to replicate Illinois's lead role in restoring civil rights to government workers across the country.

Posted by Nathan at August 11, 2003 08:57 AM