Judge rules that men who didn’t register for draft can hold federal jobs

January 27, 2009
   By Jonathan Saltzman,  Boston Globe Staff
A federal judge in Boston has declared unconstitutional a 1985 law by Congress that bars people from most federal employment if they knowingly failed to register for the draft.
US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, siding with four men fired by the federal government because they failed to register years earlier, said the law violates a constitutional provision barring the legislative branch from punishing people without a trial.
“I conclude that no circumstances exist that would permit Congress, in contravention of the Constitution’s Bill of Attainder Clause, to prohibit nonregistered males age twenty-six and older from federal agency employment for their lifetimes without judicial decisionmaking,” Woodlock said in a 32-page decision.
The four men, residents of Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., want to be rehired and compensated for lost wages. They had worked for agencies ranging from the IRS to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
“There’s already a criminal statute that says if you don’t register with the Selective Service if you’re required to, you can be indicted, you get a trial, and there’s a punishment for committing a crime,” said the civil rights lawyer for the four men, Harvey Schwartz of Boston. “What you shouldn’t do is have the legislative branch say, ‘You get no trial, you have no opportunity to put up a defense, and here’s how you’re punished.’ “
Schwartz said the statute of limitations for charging someone with a felony for failing to register for the draft had lapsed for all four men. He said at least one of the men was unaware that he had to register more than 20 years ago because he was homeless at the time and was never notified of the requirement.
Woodlock, an appointee of the Reagan administration, plans to hold a hearing Feb. 6 to discuss what happens with the lawsuit. Schwartz said he will seek to have Woodlock certify the suit as a class-action claim on behalf of thousands of other federal employees fired under the same statute.
Schwartz said it is highly unusual for a federal trial judge to declare a law unconstitutional.
“The usual course, when you’re challenging the constitutionality of a federal law, is you lose in the trial court, you might win or lose in the appeals court, and the final decision gets made by the Supreme Court,” Schwartz said. “It’s a big deal for a judge to tell Congress that you violated the Constitution.”
Officials from the Justice Department, which is defending the government in the suit, were not immediately available to comment on the ruling.

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