Civil Rights in the Supreme Court: Wrapping up the 2008-2009 Term

Courts News 07.8.09

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the final decisions of its 2008-2009 term, a year that saw many cases with civil rights implications.  Here are summaries of some of these cases:

AT&T v. Hulteen: This case was filed by four women who took pregnancy leave at AT&T before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became law in 1978 and, as a result, received smaller pensions than other workers who took short term disability leave during the same time period.  The women argued that their pensions should be recalculated in line with the Act, but the Court ruled that the Act cannot be applied retroactively. 

Bartlett v. Strickland: The Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that keeps minority votes from being diluted during redistricting doesn’t apply in districts where a minority group makes up less than 50 percent of the voting age population. However, the Court found that “racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history.”

Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson City: The Court ruled unanimously that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers cannot retaliate against employees that cooperate with an internal investigation of sexual harassment.

Cuomo v. Clearing House Assn., L.L.C.: In its 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that states, not just federal authorities, can enforce their own fair lending and consumer protection laws against national banks. In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia found that in instances where state and federal law do not explicitly conflict, states should be free to enforce their civil rights laws in court. Otherwise, said Scalia, “the bark remains, but the bite does not.”

District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne: A divided Court ruled 5-4 that convicted criminals do not have a constitutional right to access evidence used at trial to conduct DNA testing.  Alaska, the site of the case, is one of a small handful of states that do not allow for post-conviction testing of DNA.  In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the court is reluctant to create “a new constitutional code of rules for handling DNA” and left it up to the states and Congress to decide.

Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee: In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal assistance, does not prevent people from also making constitutional claims of sex discrimination.  Parents of a kindergartener sued the school under both Title IX and Section 1983, which gives people the right to sue for constitutional violations, when they believed that school officials did not adequately respond to their daughter’s complaints of sexual harassment by another student.

Forest Grove School District v. T.A.: Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), if a public school is unwilling or unable to provide a “free appropriate public education” for a disabled child, a court can require the public school to reimburse parents for the cost of sending the student to an appropriate private school. In this case, the Court ruled 6-3 that reimbursement can be required even if the child has not previously received special education services from the public school.

Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc.: In a 5-4 decision, the Court made it harder for employees to win age discrimination lawsuits by requiring that plaintiffs prove that age was the sole reason for an employer’s actions. Previously, the employers had to prove that age was not a motivating factor in their decision, but this ruling shifts the full burden of proof in age discrimination lawsuits to employees.

Horne v. Flores: Parents and students in Arizona sued the state for failing to comply with the Equal Education Opportunity Act (EEOA), which requires schools to “take appropriate action to overcome language barriers” that keep students from equally participating in instruction.  Arizona increased funding and made structural changes to its English-language learner programs, but the district court ruled these changes inadequate, held the state in contempt, and imposed a fine.  The Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed and remanded the case back to the lower court for further hearings, unsatisfied with the way that the district court evaluated the changes that Arizona made to its English language programs. 

Northwest Austin Municipal District No. 1 v. Holder:  In its 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that all individual jurisdictions should have the opportunity to bail out of a provision in the Voting Rights Act that requires federal preclearance for changes in election procedures. However, the Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the provision itself. 

Ricci v. DeStefano: In 2003, the city of New Haven, Conn., held an exam to determine which firefighters could be promoted to management. After receiving the test results, the city concluded that the test was biased and chose to abandon the exam, in order to avoid facing a discrimination lawsuit. This case was filed by one Latino and seventeen White firefighters who had taken the exam. The Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that by abandoning the exam, the city violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by employers. The decision creates a new standard that makes it hard for employers to rectify situations where a policy is found to have a discriminatory effect after the policy has been applied.

Spears v. United States: In a 5-4 ruling, the Court clarified its 2007 ruling Kimborough v. United States, which allowed judges to deviate from federal sentencing guidelines on crack and powder cocaine.  The Court in Spears said that judges can depart from the guidelines, which punish crack cocaine offenses 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, simply because they disagree with the guidelines and find them too harsh.