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.
482 U. S. 137
June 8, 1987
Janet Yuckert was trying to apply for some federal disability payment created by the Social Security Act. Regulations enacted to administer this disability benefit created a five step screening system to identify citizens who qualified. After being denied, Yuckert claimed that the second step in the regulatory system conflicted with the text of the law. The law said that disability benefits will be given in consideration of the claimant’s “age, educations, and work experience.” The second step in the regulatory process required that those factors be set aside for the moment, and the claimant would only move on to the next stage if they were severely disabled independent of those factors.
The Court ruled 6-3 that the regulatory system was Constitutional. Powell wrote for the majority, and said that no one was entitled to disability benefits without a severe disability. Thus, a step which focused merely on figuring out if such a disability existed was fine. That the vocational factors were not considered until a subsequent step was fine too, since disability itself was a crucial prerequisite. Powell further noted that Congress amended the Social Security Act in 1984, and seemed to express satisfaction at that time with the regulatory process, both in theory and in practice. Thus, the majority found no problem with the disability benefits system.
O’Connor concurred, and was joined by Stevens. She admitted that a great many potentially meritorious claims had been thrown out by step two in the regulatory process, but concluded that the system could be reformed from within, and that declaring the system in violation of the law was not necessary. Blackmun dissented, and was joined by Brennan and Marshall. He thought the law and the regulations were simply textually inconsistent, since the first said to consider vocational factors and the second said not to (at least at one stage). He provided some good inter-textual evidence to support his argument, and also tried to show that the legislative history supported his view as well. Blackmun dismissed the legislative history surrounding the 1984 amendments, calling it ambiguous.
As is often the case in statutory interpretation cases, I’m not quite sure who’s right. It’s possible that neither side is. It hardly takes a cynic to realize that sometimes Congress doesn’t know what the h*ll it’s passing. On occasion, a law simply will not be drafted thoughtfully enough to provide a decent answer to certain legal questions. The Supreme Court is stuck having to come up with an answer anyway – it’s no surprise then that the splits tend to be highly ideological. If the regulations enlarged the pool of disability beneficiaries rather than contracted it, I truly believe that the dissenters would be on the other side.
481 U. S. 368
April 22, 1987
A federal program (AFDC) provided financial assistance to needy families, and allowed individual states to set many of the standards governing when families would get that assistance. In setting those standards, the states had to consider a family’s “income” and “resources.” Virginia said that a personal injury award would count as “income.” Whether such a classification was valid under federal statutes and regulations was the issue posed by this case.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Virginia’s classification of injury awards as income was permissible. Scalia wrote for the plurality, and began by pointing out that income can easily be interpreted to mean ‘any monetary gain.’ While other federal programs to help the needy did not treat injury awards as income, the HHS Secretary, who was responsible for overseeing the AFDC, seemed to approve of such an expansive definition of the word. Scalia also rejected the claim that personal injury awards, since they compensated for lost well-being, should be more properly classified as a “resource.” He found that physical well-being itself was not a resource within the AFDC’s contemplation.
Blackmun concurred in judgment. He felt the interpretation of the HHS should be given deference, and did not see the need to reach any other arguments. Powell, joined by Brennan, Marshall, and O’Connor, dissented. Citing a bunch of tax cases and rules, he made a good argument that income should not be understood to cover injury awards. He also stressed that injury awards are primarily intended to restore, not to provide monetary gain. In practice, he concluded, the majority’s rule had a verifiable harsh effect on hard up families.
Based on the Chevron deference that Blackmun found so critical, I have to say that the majority’s position was legally stronger. Nonetheless, this is one of those cases where concern for compassion and substantive justice should perhaps have outweighed the need to follow the Chevron rule. I only say this because Powell’s dissent is quite legally persuasive in several respects. Were the law clear, compassion could have no role, but in an especially close case, I can’t say its wrong for those sorts of considerations to tip the scales.
481 U. S. 41
April 6, 1987
Everate Dedeaux was disabled in a work-related accident. Pilot Life Insurance took care of disability benefits at the company Dedeaux worked at. Over the next several years though, Pilot Life would alternately pay and cut off these benefits to Dedeaux. Accordingly, he sued Pilot Life using state common law claims. Pilot Life responded that these claims were preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
O’Connor wrote for a unanimous Court, which held that ERISA did preempt the common law claims Dedeaux had filed. ERISA expressly preempted all state laws that related to benefits plans, with an exception only for a law “which regulates insurance.” Although the common law claims that Dedeaux filed had been held applicable against insurance companies many times, they had not been originally created as a means of targeting or regulating the insurance industry. Thus, they were preempted. O’Connor proceeded to spend more pages than necessary proving that the legislative history of ERISA clearly established an intention to preempt almost everything.
On its face, I agree that ERISA did preempt the claims Dedeaux filed. But this is one of those cases where I wished the Supreme Court had examined the Constitutionality of the federal law. ERISA strikes me as one of those laws that is completely beyond the enumerated powers of Congress listed in Article I. I’ve felt the same way about other federal laws that have been addressed in preemption cases. As with so many other Constitutional battles though, my side probably lost the debate permanently back in the 1930s.
480 U. S. 273
March 3, 1987
A federal law called the Rehabilitation Act prohibited public schools from discriminating against handicapped people if they were otherwise qualified for a position. Gene Arline was fired from her teaching job because of her tuberculosis, which is an infectious disease. Arline and the school board disputed whether an infectious disease like TB could be considered a handicap for the purposes of the Rehabilitation Act.
With Brennan writing, the Court ruled 7-2 that communicable diseases were handicaps by the terms of the statute. Using a broad swath of legislative history and agency interpretation, he showed that diseases were clearly within the law’s definition of handicap. He also rejected the claim that a school board’s discrimination on the basis of a handicap’s contagious effects could be distinguished from discrimination on the basis of the handicap itself. Even so holding, Brennan remanded for further determination regarding whether Arline was “otherwise qualified” for the teaching position, and whether reasonable accommodations could be made to insure the safety of her students.
Rehnquist dissented, and was joined by Scalia. Unlike Brennan, he thought discrimination on the basis of contagiousness could be separated from discrimination on the basis of handicap, and he disputed much of the legislative history that Brennan provided. I’m not sure who’s right, but in all honesty I’m not sure why it matters. Even if Arline was discriminated against based on a handicap, Brennan still agrees that she can be dismissed if that handicap makes her unqualified for the job. It seems like either way the result will almost always be the same. As for Arline, while I have some sympathy for her, trying to continue teaching does seem self-centered. A good mark of humility and maturity is accepting that our weaknesses sometimes do prevent us from safely working in the field we love.