The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal employes, unlike other public workers, may not sue their superiors for constitutional-rights violations stemming from personnel actions.
The justices, ruling in a case involving the disciplining of a "whistle blower," said that civil service laws, which allow reinstatement and recovery of back pay but not the award of monetary damages, already protect federal workers. Officials facing personal financial liability might be deterred from "imposing discipline in future cases," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.
In another decision, the court barred members of the military from suing superior officers for violations of constitutional rights. The court, rejecting a complaint of racial discrimination against the Navy, said that such suits would undermine the strict discipline required by the military and the "established relationship between enlisted military personnel and their superior officers."
The justices reversed an appeals court decision that had raised in the minds of government lawyers the unsettling specter of military officers afraid to give orders for fear of being sued by rank-and-file soldiers.
In both cases yesterday, the court unanimously denied the employes rights available to many other public and private workers. Any new right for federal employes to sue must be created by Congress, not the courts, the justices said.
The decisions mean that federal judges can throw out these suits without hearing their merits. Though civil rights organizations supported the black sailors bringing the military case, citing a history of discrimination in the Navy, few lawyers expected the court to rule other than as it did.
But in the civilian case, public employes unions and civil liberties groups had argued that the civil service process is often inadequate to protect federal employes. The possibility of an official being forced to pay damages, they hoped, would become a stronger deterrent to unconstitutional dismissals and demotions. Yesterday's ruling "puts enormous faith in the operation of the civil service system," said Mark Lynch, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who specializes in defending whistle blowers.
The case, Bush v. Lucas, was brought by William C. Bush, an aerospace engineer at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama demoted by NASA after making statements critical of his superiors to the news media. Bush told reporters in 1978 that his GS15 job appeared to be a "fraudulent use of federal funds," in part because he did not have enough meaningful work to keep busy. He said his job should be abolished.
In response, Bush was demoted to GS12, which represented a decline of about $9,700 in annual salary. Bush appealed the action to the Civil Service Commission's Appeals Review Board, which ordered him reinstated and awarded him $30,000 in back pay on the grounds that his right of free speech had been violated.
While no law exists allowing damage suits against federal officials for violations of constitutional rights, a line of Supreme Court decisions, originally intended to deter illegal searches by federal agents, has allowed them. Citing those cases, Bush filed suit in U.S. District Court.
Upholding the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday, the justices said that Bush had no right to sue. "The question is not what remedy the court should provide for a wrong that would otherwise go unredressed," Stevens wrote.
"It is whether an elaborate remedial system the Civil Service System that has been constructed step by step, with careful attention to conflicting policy considerations, should be augmented by the creation of a new judicial remedy for the constitutional violation at issue . . . . We are convinced that Congress is in a better position to decide whether or not the public interest would be served by creating it," he added.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, agreed with the decision but wrote separately to say that nothing in the ruling bars persons whose rights have been violated from suing for damages in cases that do not involve personnel actions.
In the military case, Chappel v. Wallace, the court was in complete agreement.
The case arose when five black sailors aboard the USS Decatur claimed that because of their race they were assigned the "dirtiest and most dangerous assignments" and were targets of Ku Klux Klan sympathizers, who hung a noose in one plaintiff's quarters. All of this was tolerated by superior officers, they alleged.
Civil rights laws that protect most workers do not apply to the military. The sailors sued under the same Supreme Court precedents cited by Bush. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the case to proceed, prompting an appeal by the government, which called the action a major legal departure that could result in legal second-guessing of all sorts of military orders.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, writing for the court yesterday, agreed. The military has its own system of justice for the redress of grievances, he wrote, adding that the special system is necesary because "no military organization can function without strict discipline and regulation that would be unacceptable in a civilian setting."
The discipline is necessary both in combat and noncombat situations, Burger wrote.
In other action yesterday:
The court, acting in a case from Arlington County, said that a criminal defendant who pleaded guilty on drug charges can sue police for conducting an allegedly illegal search.
The case, Haring v. Prosise, stemmed from a 1978 search in which county police, armed with a warrant, discovered equipment used by John Frankline Prosise for the manufacture of PCP.
Most defendants challenge a search in an effort to suppress evidence that could lead to a finding of guilt in a trial. Prosise pleaded guilty, however, without objecting to the search. Later, he sued the police for damages under federal civil rights laws. Virginia authorities that said his guilty plea and his failure to object to the search resolved the question of its legality.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. But, yesterday, a unanimous Supreme Court allowed the suit, saying it was independent of the criminal proceeding against Prosise, in which the legality of the search was never adjudicated. Marshall wrote the opinion for the court.
The court also ruled unanimously that states may not regulate hunting and fishing on Indian reservations. The case, New Mexico v. Mescalero Apache Tribe, arose when New Mexico tried to require state hunting and fishing licenses for non-Indians staying at a tribe hunting lodge.
The justices, in an opinion written by Marshall, said that the tribes have unquestioned authority under federal law and treaties to handle their own regulations. The tribe, supported by the United States, feared a loss of revenue and of autonomy.