The Supreme Court yesterday let stand a ruling that allows members of the House of Representatives, the Senate and possibly the Supreme Court to be sued for job discrimination by employes.
The justices, without comment, declined to hear an appeal by Rep. Ed Jones (D-Tenn.), head of the House Administration subcommittee on services, who asked the court to overturn a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling here last May.
The appeals court, in a 2-to-1 ruling, said the congressional immunity that normally protects legislators from lawsuits does not extend to personnel decisions involving employes not connected to the legislative process.
The appeals court said Jones had to stand trial in a sex discrimination suit filed by the former manager of the House restaurant system.
Steven R. Ross, general counsel to the clerk of the House, called the high court's action "extremely disappointing. It opens up a potential floodgate" of related litigation that could involve as many as four or five thousand House employes, depending on how the appeals court ruling is interpreted, he said.
"The high court's decision is a serious breach of the comity that should be displayed between the branches," Ross said, adding that the appeals court ruling sets up a standard for judicial oversight in the legislative branch.
"It would be appropriate, and the House of Representatives has a right to expect, that such a major revision would be effected by the Supreme Court, rather than by two judges of the court of appeals," he said.
Ross said the appeals court ruling also could apply to the courts, since judges acting in their official capacities are protected from lawsuits under a judicial interpretation of the constitutional protections granted to the legislative and executive branches as well.
"To the extent that official immunities are cut back," Ross said, "it goes across the board."
A court spokesman had no comment.
The justices also agreed yesterday to decide whether someone writing a letter to the president is absolutely immune from a libel suit under the First Amendment right to petition the government.
The case involves two letters written by Robert McDonald opposing the efforts of attorney David Smith of Greensboro, N.C., to be a U.S. attorney in North Carolina.
Smith, who did not get the appointment, filed a $1 million lawsuit against McDonald, and said the letters contained "false, slanderous, libelous, inflammatory and derogatory statements." Smith said McDonald knew that the statements in the letters were false.
McDonald has responded that the statements were true and could be verified, but that, even if they are not true, the First Amendment's petition clause gives him absolute immunity in this case from having to stand trial in a defamation suit.
McDonald argued that, even if he does not have absolute immunity, the court should consider whether the petition clause at least requires increased protections against such lawsuits so they would not "have a chilling effect" on constituents writing their representatives. The case is Smith v. McDonald.
In other action, the court:
*Agreed to decide whether states receiving federal aid for the handicapped may be sued for discrimination against handicapped workers. A federal appeals court last June ruled in Atascadero St. Hospital v. Scanlon that states may give up their immunity from such suits if they receive federal funds for helping the handicapped.
*Declined to hear an appeal in a University of Washington sex discrimination suit that raised the question of "comparable worth," or whether women at the nursing school were being paid less than men with jobs essentially equal in skill and responsibility.
The case, Spaulding v. University of Washington, filed in 1974, is not the highly publicized case, also from Washington state, in which a federal judge ordered the state to pay nearly $1 billion in back pay to female state workers. The judge in that case used a comparable worth test to determine the pay discrimination.