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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Supreme Court???s Term Ends; A Mixed Year for Civil Rights Cases

Feature Story by Adina Appelbaum - 7/22/2008

The 2007-2008 Supreme Court term was a mixed blessing for the civil rights community, as the Court handed down decisions in crack cocaine sentencing guidelines, employment discrimination, voter ID laws, and execution by lethal injection.

Kathleen Sullivan, former dean of Stanford Law School and partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, LLP, told an audience at a July 1 American Constitution Society (ACS) event that the term could best be described as the "familiar ideological divide…but not every time." 

This term, the Court made significant progress in the area of criminal justice reform with its 7-2 decision in Kimbrough v. United States.  In Kimbrough, the Court upheld the discretion of judges to depart from harsh federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses, which disproportionately affect people of color in the guidelines' crack cocaine 100-1 ratio for sentencing, and to impose more lenient verdicts.

At the ACS event, John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that Kimbrough exemplified how the court is "conservative but is not afraid of recognizing rights." 

And in a decision that surprised many observers, the Supreme Court adopted a broad interpretation of worker's rights by holding in Gomez-Perez v. Potter that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits retaliation by federal employers against employees who have filed discrimination complaints.  Similarly, in CBOCS v. Humphries, the Court said that Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which bars discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts, bars retaliation for filing suits under that law.

Unfortunately however, the term also had a number of decisions that greatly restrict Americans' civil rights. 

In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita, the Supreme Court upheld a controversial Indiana voter ID law – the most restrictive in the nation – which has been widely criticized by civil rights and voting experts for creating unnecessary obstacles for individuals less likely to own such IDs, including the poor, people with disabilities, the elderly, and people of color. 

Civil rights groups and voting rights experts say that barriers like the ones created by the Indiana law may actually make voting harder for Americans and erode public confidence in the election process.  Justice John Paul Stevens, in his majority opinion, said that the law was justified in part by the state's interest "in preventing voter fraud," even though the state had not brought forward any evidence of voter fraud.

In another criminal justice case, Baze v. Rees, the Court held in a fractured 7-2 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts that execution by lethal injection did not violate the 8th Amendment prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment."  The three-drug cocktails used in lethal injection have been controversial as evidence suggests that when the mixture does not work properly, it can cause extreme pain during execution.  

In his concurring opinion, Justice Stevens noted the continuing risk of racial discrimination in death penalty sentences and called for a re-examination of the U.S.'s use of the death penalty.  Concurring opinions agree with the holding of the majority, but are written to express a particular judge's reasoning.

The civil rights community expressed profound disappointment with the Court's decision.  Steven Shapiro, ACLU's legal director, said that the decision "upheld a lethal injection protocol that veterinarians in nearly half the states, including Kentucky, are prohibited from using when putting our pets to sleep."

The case brought national attention to the debate over death penalty reform.  Panelists at the ACS Term Review noted how this decision's polarized 7-2 vote demonstrated a strategy of the more liberal-oriented justices "picking their fights," perhaps as a way to break from a strategy from the previous term. 

Legal experts at the ACS panel forecasted an increasingly internationalist focus, as well as a significant voting rights case, in the Court's next term. 

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