Supreme Court declines to limit feds' access to courts

The Supreme Court Monday vacated a lower-court ruling that limited federal employees' ability to take their claims against agencies to court.

In its decision, the high court rejected the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that federal courts lack jurisdiction over claims brought by employees who are covered by federal laws and regulations governing workplace grievances. The case, Terry L. Whitman v. Department of Transportation, involves a Federal Aviation Administration employee who works at the Alaska Regional Air Traffic Control Center. In 2001, Whitman filed a grievance with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, alleging that he had been unfairly singled out for repeated random drug and alcohol tests.

The FLRA's regional director said the case was outside its jurisdiction. Whitman then filed a suit in federal court charging that the agency had violated his constitutional rights.

The case hinged largely on a minor wording change to the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act that was enacted in 1994. The act had stated that its procedures "shall be the exclusive procedures for resolving grievances within its coverage." Under the amendments, the wording was changed to "exclusive administrative procedures." Whitman and his supporters say the new wording indicates that Congress intended to allow for judicial review of cases like his.

A federal district court, however, ruled that under the CSRA, it lacked jurisdiction to hear Whitman's grievances. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying that since the CSRA "does not expressly confer jurisdiction over employment-related claims," the courts can't assume they have it.

But the Supreme Court ruled that the appeals court's logic was backward. "The question, then, is not whether [the amended section of the CSRA] confers jurisdiction, but whether [it] (or the CSRA as a whole) removes the jurisdiction given to the federal courts…" the justices stated in their decision. They sent the case back to the appeals court to address that issue.

Pamela Karlan, the attorney who represented Whitman in arguments before the Supreme Court in December 2005, said she considered the court's ruling a victory for her client, but acknowledged that it was ambiguous.

"Some parts of what the Supreme Court did are quite clear, others are obscure," Karlan said.

For example, the justices ordered that the lower court consider whether the agency's actions in Whitman's case constitute a "prohibited personnel practice" under federal law. Both Karlan and attorneys for the government agreed that they do not. But "because the ultimate question may be jurisdictional, this concession ought not to be accepted out of hand," the justices ruled.

The National Treasury Employees Union hailed the Supreme Court's broader ruling. "This decision is a major step toward keeping the courthouse door open to all federal employees," said NTEU president Colleen M. Kelley. She said the union will "continue to participate" in the case as the Ninth Circuit takes it up again.

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