Fourteenth Amendment, Section 5:
The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
City of Boerne v. Flores, 1 however, illustrates that the Court will not always defer to Congress’s determination as to what legislation is appropriate to
enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Flores, the Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 2 which expressly overturned the Court’s narrowing of religious protections under Employment Division v. Smith, 3 exceeded congressional power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the Court allowed that Congress’s power to legislate to deter or remedy constitutional violations may include prohibitions on conduct that is not itself unconstitutional, the Court also held that there must be
a congruence and proportionality between the means adopted and the injury to be remedied. 4 Unlike the pervasive suppression of the African American vote in the South that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there was no similar history of religious persecution constituting an
egregious predicate for the far-reaching provision of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Also, unlike the Voting Rights Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act contained no geographic restrictions or termination dates. 5
A reinvigorated Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence has led to a spate of decisions applying the principles the Court set forth in Boerne, as litigants precluded from arguing that a state’s sovereign immunity has been abrogated under Article I congressional powers 6 seek alternative legislative authority in § 5. For instance, in Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, 7 a bank that had patented a financial method designed to guarantee investors sufficient funds to cover the costs of college tuition sued the State of Florida for administering a similar program, arguing that the state’s sovereign immunity had been abrogated by Congress in exercise of its Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power. The Court, however, held that application of the federal patent law to the states was not properly tailored to remedy or prevent due process violations. The Court noted that Congress had identified no pattern of patent infringement by the states, nor a systematic denial of state remedy for such violations such as would constitute a deprivation of property without due process. 8
A similar result was reached regarding the application of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to state agencies in Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents. 9 In determining that the Act did not meet the
congruence and proportionality test, the Court focused not just on whether state agencies had engaged in age discrimination, but on whether states had engaged in unconstitutional age discrimination. This was a particularly difficult test to meet, as the Court has generally rejected constitutional challenges to age discrimination by states, finding that there is a rational basis for states to use age as a proxy for other qualities, abilities and characteristics. 10 Noting the lack of a sufficient legislative record establishing broad and unconstitutional state discrimination based on age, the Court found that the ADEA, as applied to the states, was
so out of proportion to a supposed remedial or preventive object that it cannot be understood as responsive to or designed to prevent unconstitutional behavior. 11
Despite what was considered by many to be a better developed legislative record, the Court in Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett 12 also rejected the recovery of money damages against states, this time under of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). 13 Title I of the ADA prohibits employers, including states, from
discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability 14 and requires employers to
make reasonable accommodations [for] . . . physical or mental limitations . . . . unless [to do so]. . . would impose an undue hardship on the . . . business. 15 Although the Court had previously overturned discriminatory legislative classifications based on disability in City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 16 the Court had held that determinations of when states had violated the Equal Protection Clause in such cases were to be made under the relatively deferential standard of rational basis review. Thus, failure of an employer to provide the kind
reasonable accommodations required under the ADA would not generally rise to the level of a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and instances of such failures did not qualify as a
history and pattern of unconstitutional employment discrimination. 17 Thus, according the Court, not only did the legislative history developed by the Congress not establish a pattern of unconstitutional discrimination against the disabled by states, 18 but the requirements of the ADA would be out of proportion to the alleged offenses.
The Court's more recent decisions in this area, however, seem to de-emphasize the need for a substantial legislative record when the class being discriminated against is protected by heightened scrutiny of the government's action. In Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 19 the Court considered the recovery of monetary damages against states under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This Act provides, among other things, that both male and female employees may take up to twelve weeks of unpaid
family care leave to care for a close relative with a serious health condition. Noting that § 5 could be used to justify prophylactic legislation, the Court accepted the argument that the Act was intended to prevent gender-based discrimination in the workplace tracing to the historic stereotype that women are the primary caregivers. Congress had documented historical instances of discrimination against women by state governments, and had found that women were provided maternity leave more often than were men.
Although there was a relative absence of proof that states were still engaged in wholesale gender discrimination in employment, the Court distinguished Garrett and Kimel, which had held Congress to a high standard for justifying legislation attempting to remedy classifications subject only to rational basis review.
Because the standard for demonstrating the constitutionality of a gender-based classification is more difficult to meet than our rational basis test . . . it was easier for Congress to show a pattern of state constitutional violations. 20 Consequently, the Court upheld an across-the-board, routine employment benefit for all eligible employees as a congruent and proportional response to the
state-sanctioned gender stereotypes.
Nine years after Hibbs, the Court returned to the Family and Medical Leave Act, this time to consider the Act's
self care (personal medical) leave provisions. There, in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Md., a four-Justice plurality, joined by concurring Justice Scalia, found the self care provisions too attenuated from the gender protective roots of the family care provisions to merit heightened consideration. 21 According to the plurality, the self care provisions were intended to ameliorate discrimination based on illness, not sex. The plurality observed that paid sick leave and disability protection were almost universally available to state employees without intended or incidental gender bias. The addition of unpaid self care leave to this state benefit might help some women suffering pregnancy related illness, but the establishment of a broad self care leave program under the FMLA was not a proportional or congruent remedy to protect any constitutionally based right under the circumstances. 22
The Court in Tennessee v. Lane 23 held that Congress could authorize damage suits against a state for failing to provide disabled persons physical access to its courts. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act provides that no qualified person shall be excluded or denied the benefits of a public program by reason of a disability, 24 but since disability is not a suspect class, the application of Title II against states would seem questionable under the reasoning of Garrett. 25 Here, however, the Court evaluated the case as a limit on access to court proceedings, which, in some instances, has been held to be a fundamental right subject to heightened scrutiny under the Due Process Clause. 26
Reviewing the legislative history of the ADA, the Court found that Title II, as applied, was a congruent and proportional response to a Congressional finding of
a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment in the administration of state services and programs, including systematic deprivations of fundamental rights. 27 However, as Justice Rehnquist pointed out in dissent, the deprivations the majority relied on were not limited to instances of imposing unconstitutional deprivations of court access to disabled persons. 28 Rather, in an indication of a more robust approach where protection of fundamental rights is at issue, the majority also relied more broadly on a history of state limitations on the rights of the disabled in areas such as marriage or voting, and on limitations of access to public services beyond the use of courts. 29
Congress’s authority under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to abrogate states' Eleventh Amendment immunity is strongest when a state's conduct at issue in a case is alleged to have actually violated a constitutional right. In United States v. Georgia, 30 a disabled state prison inmate who used a wheelchair for mobility alleged that his treatment by the State of Georgia and the conditions of his confinement violated, among other things, Title II of the ADA and the Eighth Amendment (as incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment). A unanimous Court found that, to the extent that the prisoner's claims under Title II for money damages were based on conduct that independently violated the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, they could be applied against the state. In doing so, the Court declined to apply the congruent and proportional response test, distinguishing the cases applying that standard (discussed above) as not generally involving allegations of direct constitutional violations. 31