Washington — An unexpected blend of liberal and conservative Supreme Court justices gave workers more leeway Tuesday to sue when they face retaliation after complaining about discrimination in the workplace.
In two employment cases, one involving race and the other age, the court took an expansive view of workers' rights and avoided the narrow, ideology-based decisions that marked its previous term.
The justices read parts of an 1860s civil rights act and the main anti-age bias law to include the right to sue over reprisals even though neither provision expressly prohibits retaliation.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court in a case involving a black employee at a Cracker Barrel restaurant who was fired, said that previous Supreme Court decisions and congressional action make clear that retaliation is covered.
The idea that a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, known as section 1981, "encompasses retaliation claims is indeed well-embedded in the law," Breyer said in the 7-2 ruling.
The outcomes contrasted with rulings last term in which conservative majorities insisted on literal readings of federal laws over the objections of liberal dissenters who favored more expansive interpretations.
On Tuesday, Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy joined their more liberal colleagues in both rulings. Indeed, Alito wrote the court's opinion allowing a federal employee to pursue retaliation claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The vote in that case was 6-3.
Chief Justice John Roberts dissented in the age case, but was part of the majority in the race retaliation case.
Roberts and Alito "have been so true to the plain language of the statute. I was really surprised," said Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business Legal Foundation.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented in both cases. "Retaliation is not discrimination based on race," Thomas wrote in the Cracker Barrel case.
The decisions also displayed other emerging trends of the term - rulings favorable to workers in employment discrimination cases and the absence of 5-4 decisions. There has been only one 5-4 decision so far.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president Robin Conrad said she has been puzzled by the court's repeated rulings against employers, particularly after last term's string of victories for business interests.