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Ginsburg writes first opinion of Supreme Court term, about age discrimination

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves the stage after speaking to first-year students at Georgetown Law in Washington in September 2018. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that the federal law prohibiting age discrimination in employment applies to state and local governments, regardless of their size.

The 8-to-0 decision was written by the court’s oldest member, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85. It was the third straight year Ginsburg wrote the court’s first opinion of the new term. (Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh had not joined the court when the case was argued Oct. 1.)

The case involved language in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. It says “employer” is defined as a person or entity with 20 or more employees. But it says later it “also means” a state or a political subdivision of a state.

Lower courts disagreed about whether that meant any government unit was covered by the law or only those with 20 or more employees.

Ginsburg said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit was correct in ruling it was the former.

“First and foremost, the ordinary meaning of ‘also means’ is additive rather than clarifying,” Ginsburg wrote.

The case involved the Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision in Arizona. It laid off its two oldest firefighters, John Guido, then 46, and Dennis Rankin, 54. The men sued, alleging age discrimination, but the district said it was too small to qualify as an employer under the law.

The Supreme Court’s decision means the men can continue their suit.

Ginsburg dismissed the warning of the fire district that applying the law to small subdivisions could put at risk vital public services such as fire protection.

“For 30 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has consistently interpreted the ADEA as we do today,” she wrote. “And a majority of States forbid age discrimination by political subdivisions of any size. . . . No untoward service shrinkages have been documented.”

The case is Mount Lemmon Fire District v. John Guido.