Traynor v. Turnage

485 U. S. 535

April 20, 1988

The GI bill helped veterans go to school for 10 years after honorable discharge. This 10 year period could be extended if they missed school due to disabilities not caused by “willful misconduct.” Two veterans were denied this extension when their alcoholism was ruled “willful misconduct.” They sued under the Rehabilitation Act, which denied any discrimination against the handicapped. There was a standing challenge because normally determination about veterans benefits did not get judicial review.

The Court unanimously found standing, since the dispute was over the Rehabilitation Act, and not veterans administration itself. Then the Court held 4-3 that the extension could be denied for alcoholism (Scalia and Kennedy did not participate). White said the same Congress that passed the Rehabilitation Act also intimated that it was fine with alcoholism being deemed “willful misconduct.” White concluded that there was no discrimination against the handicapped – just those who had committed misconduct. In light of the ambiguity about the Rehabilitation Act’s reach, and alcoholism’s status as a ‘disease,’ the Court had no trouble deferring to the veteran’s administration.

Blackmun, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. He told sob stories about the veterans getting into drinking as little children, and how they had no choice in the development of their addiction. Blackmun also cited literature showing how hard it is to beat alcoholism. He thought they deserved to at least argue that they had committed no “willful misconduct,” and that the Rehabilitation Act gave them that right. Legislative history showed that the Rehabilitation Act was intended to cover alcoholism, and the Congressional acquiescence to the “willful misconduct” standard wasn’t entirely explicit.

This is a very interesting case about accountability. Is it fair to hold a full grown man accountable for a habit he developed at age 8? Maybe no, but this is also a case about entitlements. These men were given 10 whole years of free government assistance, and they still demanded more! Government aid is a generous privilege, not some natural right, and I do get tired of Brennan and friends pretending otherwise so often.

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