May 31, 2006 in Nation/World

Supreme Court trims whistle-blower rights

Gina Holland Associated Press
 

Court will hear Oregon case

» The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will decide if tobacco giant Philip Morris must pay nearly $80 million in damages to the family of a longtime smoker, a case that could shield companies from large jury awards if the company wins.

» Lawyers on both sides said the case could go a long way to determining whether the high court will place limits on punitive damage awards in a variety of cases beyond tobacco.

» At $79.5 million, the award in the Oregon case is more than 150 times the $521,000 actual damages awarded by the jury. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in February that the amount was not excessive given the “extraordinarily reprehensible” conduct of Philip Morris in marketing cigarettes.

» A jury had ordered damages be paid to the family of Jesse D. Williams, a janitor who smoked three packs of Marlboros a day before he died of lung cancer in 1997.

» Arguments in the case are expected this fall.

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court scaled back protections for government workers who blow the whistle on official misconduct Tuesday, a 5-4 decision in which new Justice Samuel Alito cast the deciding vote.

In a victory for the Bush administration, justices said the 20 million public employees do not have free-speech protections for what they say as part of their jobs.

Critics predicted the impact would be sweeping, from silencing police officers who fear retribution for reporting department corruption, to subduing federal employees who want to reveal problems with government hurricane preparedness or terrorist-related security.

Supporters said that it will protect governments from lawsuits filed by disgruntled workers pretending to be legitimate whistle-blowers.

The ruling was perhaps the clearest sign yet of the Supreme Court’s shift with the departure of moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the arrival of Alito.

A year ago, O’Connor authored a 5-4 decision that encouraged whistle-blowers to report sex discrimination in schools. The current case was argued in October but not resolved before her retirement in late January.

A new argument session was held in March with Alito on the bench. He joined the court’s other conservatives in Tuesday’s decision, which split along traditional conservative-liberal lines.

Exposing government misconduct is important, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. “We reject, however, the notion that the First Amendment shields from discipline the expressions employees make pursuant to their professional duties,” Kennedy said.

The ruling overturned an appeals court decision that said Los Angeles County prosecutor Richard Ceballos was constitutionally protected when he wrote a memo questioning whether a county sheriff’s deputy had lied in a search warrant affidavit. Ceballos had filed a lawsuit claiming he was demoted and denied a promotion for trying to expose the lie.

Kennedy said if the superiors thought the memo was inflammatory, they had the authority to punish him.

“Official communications have official consequences, creating a need for substantive consistency and clarity. Supervisors must ensure that their employees’ official communications are accurate, demonstrate sound judgment, and promote the employer’s mission,” Kennedy wrote.

Stephen Kohn, chairman of the National Whistleblower Center, said: “The ruling is a victory for every crooked politician in the United States.”

Justice David H. Souter’s lengthy dissent sounded like it might have been the majority opinion if O’Connor were still on the court. “Private and public interests in addressing official wrongdoing and threats to health and safety can outweigh the government’s stake in the efficient implementation of policy,” he wrote.

Souter was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Stephen Breyer also supported Ceballos, but on different grounds.

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