Regardless of your opinion on the issue of gay rights, Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act is a win for workplace fairness.
The constitutional authorization for most federal fair-employment laws is based on the guarantees of equal protection of the law based on the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the right of Congress to regulate interstate commerce clause. In his opinion overturning DOMA, Justice Anthony Kennedy found that DOMA violated the Fifth and 14th Amendment rights of gays and lesbians. He reaffirmed the role of the Fifth and 14th Amendments in preventing discrimination.
Kennedy’s opinion is important because in last summer’s blockbuster Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, Chief Justice John Roberts undercut the interstate commerce clause as a justification for passing federal legislation. Conceivably, corporate opponents of workplace fairness laws could point to Roberts’ decision in the Affordable Care Act as a way to argue that federal workplace fairness laws are unconstitutional. However Wednesday’s decision in the DOMA case means that workplace fairness laws still have clear and strong constitutional support.
The DOMA decision is a bright spot in a Supreme Court session that has otherwise been pretty bleak for employees. My opinion is that as a result of recent Supreme Court decisions, more and more fair-employment cases will be brought in state court. The decision in DOMA is still relevant to state law discrimination and retaliation claims. Most states have equal protection clauses in their state constitutions. The reasoning supporting the DOMA decision supports state fair-employment statutes. I believe this is true even for fair employment claims based on retaliation. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg pointed out in her dissent in Nassar, retaliation is a form of discrimination. In other words, if you have been fired in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim, your constitutional rights have been violated. If the Supreme Court had decided DOMA differently, employees would have a weaker argument that a retaliatory discharge violated their equal protection rights.