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Gregory v. Ashcroft

Citation. 501 U.S. 452 (1991).
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Brief Fact Summary.

A state law contained a mandatory retirement age for judges. Two state judges challenged the law as being in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Fourteenth Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The ADEA does not apply to a state’s most important government officials.


(The factual background is omitted from the casebook.)


Does the federal ADEA apply to a state’s most important government officials?


(O’Connor, J.) No. The ADEA does not apply to a state’s most important government officials. The ADEA prevents an employer from terminating an employee aged 40 or older because of their age. The statute includes a state or political subdivision of a state in the definition of “employer.” The Constitution contemplates a balance between the state and federal governments, although the federal government may use the authority of the Supremacy Clause to legislate in areas traditionally left to the states. In this case, the challenged law is a state constitutional provision governing the qualifications of its judges. Due to the delicacy of maintaining the state and federal balance in this type of decision, federal courts should be certain that Congress intends to supplant state law by looking for clear language of that intent in the statute. Previous Supreme Court decisions have recognized the authority of states to determine the qualifications of their most important government officials, although the authority is not unlimited. The ADEA already excludes most important state and federal public officials, and so it is unclear whether Congress intended for state-appointed judges to be included. In light of that ambiguity, the Court will defer to the state’s authority to determine the qualifications of its judges.  


(Blackmun, J.) The ADEA does not protect an “appointee on the policymaking level.” I disagree that appointed state judges fall within this exclusion.


(White, J.) Neither the ADEA nor the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit the state’s mandatory retirement provision. However, the majority opinion ignores precedent and announces an unworkable rule.


The ADEA defines an employee as “an individual employed by any employer except . . . any person elected to public office in any state or political subdivision of any sate by the qualified voters thereof, or any person chosen by such officer to be on such officer’s personal staff, or an appointee on the policymaking level or an intermediate advisor with respect to the exercise of the constitutional or legal powers of the office.”

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