June 29, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety

On June 29, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety, No. 20-603. The Court held that a State may not invoke sovereign immunity as a legal defense to block a civil lawsuit filed against it under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) by a public employee returning from military service because the States waived immunity on issues concerning the Armed Forces when they agreed to join the Union.

The plaintiff, Le Roy Torres, enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1989, was called to active duty and deployed to Iraq in 2007, and was exposed to toxic burn pits during his deployment. He received an honorable discharge but suffered from constrictive bronchitis on his return. His employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety, refused to accommodate his physical condition by reemploying him in a different role. As permitted by the USERRA, Torres initiated a civil suit against his employer in Texas state court. The employer moved to dismiss, claiming that sovereign immunity protected it from the suit.

The Court relied on “the Constitution’s text, its history, and this Court’s precedents” in ruling that the States, including Texas, had waived sovereign immunity from suit over issues relating to “Congress’ power to build and maintain the Armed Forces.” First, the Constitution’s “many broad, interrelated provisions” established “a complete delegation of authority to the Federal Government to provide for the common defense,” and the text “also divests the States of like power.” Next, the Court noted that “proposals to limit the reach of Congress’ war powers” were considered during the process of the framing, but that “those amendments ‘die[d] away,’” meaning that the States “ratified the Constitution knowing that their sovereignty would give way to national military policy.” Finally, the Court traced an “unbroken line of precedents” — from Tarble’s Case in 1872 to PennEast Pipeline Co. v. New Jersey decided last year — to support its conclusion that “Congress’ power to build and maintain a national military is ‘complete in itself.’”

Ultimately, the Court ruled that “the States, in coming together to form a Union, agreed to sacrifice their sovereign immunity for the good of the common defense” and held that a contrary ruling would “thwart national military readiness.”

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Kavanaugh joined. Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion. Justice Thomas filed a dissent, in which Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Barrett joined.

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