WASHINGTON -- Further sapping the federal government's power over states, the Supreme Court today shielded states against federal lawsuits by employees who say they are victims of age bias.
By a 5-4 vote in cases from Florida and Alabama, the court ruled that Congress exceeded its authority when it allowed federal lawsuits against the states under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
The law cannot trump states' 11th Amendment immunity against being sued in federal courts, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.
Joining O'Connor were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Left in dissent were the court's more liberal justices -- John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
By identical votes in a series of recent decisions, the court ignited what legal scholars have called a states' rights revolution by eroding the federal government's power over states.
O'Connor's 28-page opinion for the court narrowed Congress' power to enforce the 14th Amendment's equal-protection guarantee when seeking to protect people discriminated against for reasons other than race, national origin, religion and gender.
Today's decision did not discuss whether another federal anti-bias law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, could be enforced with federal lawsuits against state employers. But the court's rationale seemed to rule out such enforcement as well.
''States may discriminate on the basis of age without offending the 14th Amendment if the age classification in question is rationally related to a legitimate state interest,'' O'Connor said. ''The rationality commanded ... does not require states to match age distinctions and the legitimate interests they serve with razorlike precision.''
She added: ''In contrast, when a state discriminates on the basis of race or gender, we require a tighter fit between the discriminatory means and the legitimate ends they serve.''
O'Connor said today's decision does not leave employees subjected to age bias without any legal remedy.
''State employees are protected by state age discrimination statutes, and may recover money damages from their state employers in almost every state of the union,'' she said.
Stevens blasted the court's five-member majority for what he called ''judicial activism.''
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