ANNE W. WALKER had a responsible job on the Hill. As manager of the House of Representatives Restaurant System, she was in charge of three large cafeterias, four carry-outs, two catering operations and one full-service restaurant, and her salary was $45,000. But she was fired in 1982 and has sued charging sex discrimination. She alleges in her complaint that Rep. Ed Jones, chairman of the House subcommittee that supervises restaurants, wanted to get rid of her because he believed her salary was "ridiculous for a woman."
This week, the Supreme Court let stand a Court of Appeals decision allowing this suit to proceed. Rep. Jones and his co-defendants had hoped for a reversal and claimed that they could not be sued because the speech and debate clause of the Constitution protects them in the conduct of congressional business. Does the Supreme Court's action mean that any congressional employee could now win an employment discrimination suit? No, but the door to the courthouse has been opened a little wider.
Congress exempted itself from Title VII -- the employment section -- of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Five years ago, however, the Supreme Court held that Hill staffers could bring suit even in the absence of this statutory protection on the basis of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees due process by the federal government. The 1979 case was subsequently settled without a court decision, so while it is clear that such cases can be brought, there is still some question about the circumstances in which they will succeed.
Many judges believe that because of separation of powers limitations, courts cannot interfere in congressional decisions to hire and fire certain personnel engaged in the legislative process. Their loyalty, confidential relationship and political compatibility with a member are essential to that proc that relationship should not be interfered with by another branch of government. However, the Court of Appeals, in deciding the Walker case, did not reach that question because it found that the restaurant manager was not such a person. Political advisers, legislative assistants and speech writers employed by members of Congress may still have trouble winning employment cases in court. But for thousands of Hill employees who are in Anne Walker's category -- waiters, garage attendants, barbers, carpenters, medical personnel and others -- this week's action by the Supreme Court may be seen as greatly improving their chances of winning employment discrimination suits.