Washington — The Supreme Court on Wednesday marched ahead on a course giving state governments more rights, ruling that state workers cannot use an important federal disability-rights law to win money damages for on-the-job discrimination.
The decision narrowing the reach of the Americans With Disabilities Act was the latest of a series of 5-4 rulings that have tipped the federal-state balance of power toward the states.
The disability-rights law does not trump states' constitutional immunity against being sued for damages in federal courts, the justices said. Congress did not identify a pattern of "irrational state discrimination" against disabled state workers to justify overriding that immunity, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court.
"Five justices on the court are deeply committed to protecting states' rights and limiting federal power," said University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky.
Since 1995, the justices have limited federal authority in a number of ways, striking down the Gun-Free School Zones Act and ruling that Congress cannot let rape victims sue their attackers in federal court. The court last year barred state workers from suing their employers in federal court under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
University of Virginia law professor A.E. Dick Howard said the court may be acting out of "a distaste for excessive federal power" and added, "We haven't seen any judicial state of mind like this since the 1930s," when the court threw out New Deal laws.
The recent series of rulings have featured the same 5-4 split among the justices as in Wednesday's decision.
Joining Rehnquist were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Writing for the four, Breyer said the court's ruling "improperly invades a power that the Constitution assigns to Congress."