WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday about who counts as a supervisor under a federal employment discrimination law. The court also issued orders clearing the way for further challenges to aspects of President Obama’s health care law and rejecting an appeal concerning the insanity defense.
EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION The employment case was brought by Maetta Vance, who was the only black employee in the catering department of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. She said another worker there had subjected her to racial taunts and veiled threats.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows some kinds of lawsuits only if the challenged conduct was that of a supervisor. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago, which heard Ms. Vance’s suit, defines “supervisor” narrowly, limiting it to people with the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline an employee.
Other courts consider a supervisor to be anyone with the power to direct an employee’s daily activities.
Justice Elena Kagan, perhaps reflecting on her experiences as dean of Harvard Law School, discussed the difference.
“Professors don’t have the ability to fire secretaries, but professors do have the ability to make secretarial lives living hells,” she said, suggesting that the Seventh Circuit’s approach was too limited.
Her point met with no resistance from the lawyers who argued the case. All of them, to the frustration of some of the justices, said a more flexible approach was warranted.
Justice Antonin Scalia told a lawyer for the university that the court had agreed to hear the case, Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556, “principally to decide whether the Seventh Circuit rule was right or not.”
“And you don’t even defend that,” he said. “So there is nobody here defending the Seventh Circuit.”
The lawyer, Gregory G. Garre, said that supporting briefs, including one from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had defended the narrower definition.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. tried to test the limits of the more flexible approach, asking if a senior employee allowed to pick the music in a workplace was a supervisor.
“If you don’t date me,” he imagined such an employee saying to another, “it’s going to be country music all day long.”
Daniel R. Ortiz, a lawyer for Ms. Vance, said such conduct would not be severe enough to qualify.
Justice Scalia said “hard rock” might present a more difficult question. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked about Wagner’s operas.
Chief Justice Roberts said having to listen to music, all day long, that the listener found unpleasant could be more severe than being instructed that “you’re going to be cutting the celery rather than, you know, baking the bread.”
Justice Alito asked whether “chopping onions all day would be enough” to be considered severe, and Mr. Ortiz responded yes.
“How about chopping other things, just chopping?” Justice Alito continued. “You are the sous chef. You are going to be chopping all day every day. Would that be enough?”
It depends, Mr. Ortiz responded.
Some justices were unhappy about the posture of the case in a second sense, suggesting that Ms. Vance could not show that the employee whose conduct she challenged was her supervisor under any definition of the term.
HEALTH CARE LAW The court’s order on Monday in the health care case, Liberty University v. Geithner, No. 11-438, was largely a housekeeping matter. In June, on the day after the court rejected a challenge to the heart of the law in another case, it turned down Liberty’s appeal of a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va.
The university asked the Supreme Court to reconsider, pointing out that its case concerned issues on which neither the Fourth Circuit nor the justices had ruled. In such circumstances, the Supreme Court often returns cases to the lower courts for further consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in the related case.
In response to the rehearing petition, the federal government told the justices that it did not oppose the use of that procedure in the university’s case. The Fourth Circuit will now consider whether Congress had the constitutional authority to impose burdens on larger employers and whether the law impinges on religious liberty.
INSANITY DEFENSE Over the objections of three justices, the Supreme Court declined to decide whether the insanity defense is a constitutional requirement. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that the court should have heard the case of Delling v. Idaho, No. 11-1515, to consider whether Idaho and a few other states are free to impose criminal liability on people who are unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct because of mental illnesses like paranoid delusions.