Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62; 120 S. Ct. 631; 145 L. Ed. 2d 522 (2000)
Facts—The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) made discrimination in employment on the basis of age illegal. Employees of public universities and of the Florida Department of Corrections sued states under this act, and the states evoked immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. District Court decisions ruling that the ADEA’s abrogation of such immunity was unconstitutional. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision was in conflict with decisions in other circuits.
(a) Did the ADEA contain a clear statement of Congress’s intent to abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity?
(b) If so, was this a proper exercise of congressional authority under the enforcement clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
Reasons—J. O’Connor (7–2 as to (a); 5–4 as to (b)). Congress had expanded the scope of the ADEA, originally adopted in 1967, on a number of occasions. Past decisions had established that Congress can only abrogate state immunity against suits by doing so in unmistakable language. The ADEA satisfies that requirement. In EEOC v. Wyoming (1983), the Court upheld ADEA as a valid exercise of congressional powers under the commerce clause, but the Court also needs to examine the relationship of this law to the Eleventh Amendment. The decision in Seminole Tribe v. Florida (1996) indicated that “Even when the Constitution vests in Congress complete lawmaking authority over a particular area, the Eleventh Amendment prevents congressional authorization of suits by private parties against unconsenting States.” Valid exercises of congressional power under Section 5 (the enforcement clause) of the Fourteenth Amendment do allow for the abrogation of Eleventh Amendment immunity. City of Boerne v. Flores (1997) indicates, however, that although Congress can “enforce” the Fourteenth Amendment, it cannot decree its substance. “The ultimate interpretation and determination of the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive meaning remains the province of the Judicial Branch.” Congressional interpretation must pass the tests of “congruence and proportionality.” Prior court decisions have subjected age discrimination to relaxed standards of review (upholding state age classifications in relation to the termination of police officers, members of the foreign service, and state judges) that the ADEA has sought to evade. Congress did not make adequate findings to indicate that such comprehensive legislation was warranted. Individuals may be entitled to relief under state age discrimination statutes, but Congress may not redefine the Fourteenth Amendment to accomplish this objective.
J. Stevens accepted the majority’s view that Congress had clearly expressed its intention, but he would have allowed Congress, rather than the judicial branch, to guard state interests, since states are represented in that body. If Congress has power to protect rights, such power must necessarily abrogate Eleventh Amendment restrictions. Stevens voiced his continuing opposition to the opinion in Seminole Tribe v. Florida.
J. Thomas argued that abrogation of state Eleventh Amendment immunity fell outside congressional enforcement powers and that Congress had not clearly made such an intention to abrogate this immunity in this case.