Upholding the Freedmen’s Remedy

The Supreme Court today held 7-2  that a black former employee of Cracker Barrel can go ahead and sue the company for retaliation, based on his allegations that it fired him for complaining about racial discrimination. A few months ago, I thought  that the case might come out the other way and serve as a vehicle for the court’s conservatives to rein in employment-discrimination law. Instead, Justice Stephen Breyer’s opinion—joined by all the justices but Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas—relies on the principle of stare decisis, or respect for past precedent, to allow employees to sue for retaliation based on an 1861 law that doesn’t mention retaliation explicitly. The key precedents are a 1969 holding from the Warren Court striking down a restrictive housing covenant and a 5-4 ruling about retaliation claims brought via Title IX (the law that prohibits gender discrimination in school sports) written by Sandra Day O’Connor in 2005. Breyer carefully lays them out and then writes that considerations of stare decisis “impose a considerable burden upon those who would seek a different interpretation that would necessarily unsettle many court precedents.” A page later, he acknowledges that the statute nowhere mentions retaliation (nor did Congress add it in amending the law in 1991). But, Breyer writes, “that fact alone is not sufficent to carry the day.”

Thomas and Scalia disagree. Kennedy, Alito, and Roberts, however, stand with Breyer in upholding the Warren Court decision and the O’Connor majority opinon instead of going with the plain text reading. There are good reasons for the majority’s position aside from stare decisis: As Breyer points out, when Congress re-enacted the law in 1991, lawmakers thought they were expanding the statute’s original scope. But the main point is that it will be worth watching if and how today’s division over how to read a statute plays out among the conservatives. Also, today’s opinion is more fodder for Linda Greenhouse’s observation about the decline of the 5-4 split , at least so far this year.