In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court said that public employees do not have blanket rights to file lawsuits as part of whistleblower protections under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.Since SOX became law in 2002, about 750 people have filed complaints with the Department of Labor, saying that they were retaliated against for bringing to light problems within their department, whether directly to a superior or to someone outside.
The Bush administration had urged the court to place limits on when government whistleblowers can sue, arguing that those workers have other options, including the filing of civil service complaints. The case was argued twice this term, once before Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retired in January, and again after her successor, Samuel Alito, joined the bench. He cast the tie-breaking vote.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that the First Amendment does not protect "every statement a public employee makes in the course of doing his or her job." In the minority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said that it would be wrong to create a difference between "speaking as a citizen and speaking in the course of one's employment."
The case before the court was that of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Richard Ceballos, who had questioned in a memo whether a county deputy sheriff had lied in order to obtain a search warrant. Ceballos advised his superiors of the wrongdoing, and recommended that the county drop its case. When the case wasn't dropped, Ceballos informed the defense of his findings. He later filed a lawsuit against the District Attorney's Office, claiming he was removed from the case, demoted and transferred to a different office in retaliation.
The ruling sided with the Los Angeles office, which had appealed an appellate court ruling that Ceballos was protected under the Constitution.
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