WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling with each side severely ridiculing the other for misreading the law, made it significantly harder yesterday for workers claiming racial, religious or sexual bias on the job to win their cases.
Adding to a three-step process that had already lowered workers' chances of proving bias, the court said that they must get over still another legal hurdle to prevail.
The majority insisted it was merely following past rulings, but the dissenters countered that the ruling had gone a good deal further and set up a new scheme that "greatly disfavors" many workers' discrimination complaints, putting those workers at a "tremendous disadvantage."
The dissenters also contended that the ruling runs directly counter to the views of job discrimination law held by the Justice Department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
While dismissing as exaggerated the "dire practical consequences" predicted by the dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, conceded that the ruling would allow some employers to win job bias cases even if they had used "unpersuasive" or "obviously contrived" reasons to explain away discrimination.
The decision produced sometimes bitter exchanges between Mr. Scalia and Justice David H. Souter, with each chastising the other for serious errors in interpreting court decisions stretching back to 1973.
Congress invited to change it
Mr. Souter, in an implied invitation to Congress to overturn the result, noted that Congress had passed a broad new civil rights law in 1991 to overturn eight prior court rulings giving narrow readings to federal job rights laws. "Congress remains free to alter what we have done."
The ruling came in the case of a black officer who was a shift commander at a Missouri "halfway house" for convicted criminals but lost his job to a white officer; he claimed to be the victim of race bias by his superiors. The Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision in his favor and sent the case back for further review under the new decision.
The decision involved a part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlaws intentional discrimination on the job because of race, sex or religion. Beginning in 1973, the court had spelled out this process for such claims in court:
First, the worker had to prove that he or she had been treated unequally because of race or sex. Then, the employer got a chance to offer reasons other than bias to explain what it had done. After that, the worker was given a chance to prove that those reasons were simply a "pretext" for an action that actually was the product of intentional bias.
In the Missouri case, a lower federal court ruled that, if the worker succeeded in discounting the employer's other explanations, the worker had to be declared the winner. But, in the new decision, the majority said that, even after disproving the employer's claimed reasons as mere "pretext," the worker still had to convince the judge or jury that bias was the motivating factor.
Justice Scalia dismissed as an "utter implausibility" the dissenters' argument that prior Supreme Court rulings meant that the worker would win once the employer's reasons had been disproved as merely a pretext.
Justice Scalia also brusquely rejected the dissenters' claim that the decision would reward employers who lie about their reasons because any reasons would force the worker to come up with still more proof that bias was the motivation.
In turn, Justice Souter castigated the majority for "destroy[ing] a framework carefully crafted in precedents as old as 20 years."
Justice Scalia's majority opinion was supported by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas. With Justice Souter in dissent were Justices Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and Byron R. White.
Ruling on advertising
In another ruling yesterday that deeply divided the court, the justices upheld the constitutionality of two federal laws that bar radio or television stations from advertising lotteries in states where those state-run games of chance are forbidden.
The decision produced four different combinations of votes behind various reasons, but the final tally was 7-2 to uphold the laws.
The case involved an FM radio station based in Elizabeth City, N.C., that broadcasts from a site just 3 miles from the Virginia border. Virginia has a state lottery, and the station wanted to advertise that because more than 92 percent of its listeners live in Virginia. The court ruled, however, that since North Carolina does not now have a lottery, the station may not carry any ads for the Virginia lottery.