The court was hearing arguments in the case of William Hibbs, a Nevada state employee who filed suit after being fired for staying home to take care of his seriously ill wife.
An appeals court ruling in his favor is being challenged by Nevada, which argues that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to subject a sovereign state to lawsuits for damages under the FMLA.
The Washington Post notes that under the court's recent states' rights precedents, the key issue is whether the FMLA is an economic regulation - or an anti-discrimination law, aimed at gender stereotypes, that was both authorized by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and appropriately tailored by Congress to deal with a proven history of state sex discrimination.
The Bush administration has sided with Hibbs. Its representative at the high court hearing, Viet Dinh, assistant attorney general for legal policy, that the FMLA is vital to ensuring gender equity in the workplace, given the history of state and private employers assuming that only women should be given family leave.
The FMLA, a centerpiece of President Clinton's legislative agenda, "is part of a broader statutory scheme to remedy sex-based discrimination" and should be fully enforced against state governments, Dinh told the justices.
Paul G. Taggart, deputy attorney general of Nevada, countered that family leave is basically a form of economic regulation passed by Congress under its power to regulate interstate commerce, much like a fair labor standards law, which the court has said is not enforceable against states through individual suits for damages.
A decision in the case is expected by the end of June.
te governments that violate the federal Family Leave and Medical Act should be just as open to monetary claims from their employees as private employers are, a Bush administration official argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday.