The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

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The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Supreme Court Cases This Term Will Impact Civil Rights

Feature Story by Jheanelle Wilkins - 11/24/2008

The current U.S. Supreme Court term includes many cases that will have lasting effects on civil rights. These cases raise important questions on arbitration and the right to sue, as well as the application of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978.

Bartlett v. Strickland

Bartlett v. Strickland challenges Section 2 of the VRA and arises from a dispute over redistricting in North Carolina. Section 2 prohibits voting discrimination based on race or color, including the practice of "vote dilution," in which minorities are packed into one voting district so they do not have voting power elsewhere, or distributing them between a few districts so that their votes are less influential.

In Bartlett, the plaintiff claims that state legislators violated a provision of the North Carolina constitution by dividing a county in order create a state House district, District 18, with a 39.4 percent African-American voting age population. The constitution states that counties cannot be divided when creating voting districts.

Legislators said that the division was necessary to protect African Americans from vote dilution under the VRA, which would trump state law in this case.

However, the North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, stating that the VRA's vote dilution provisions did not require a district that was less than 50 percent minority, and held that the district boundaries should follow county lines.

The Court will determine if vote dilution can be claimed in a situation where a minority group comprises less than 50 percent of a voting district's population.

In an amicus brief, the NAACP argues that sticking to a stark 50 percent minority rule misconstrues the intent of the VRA.  The NAACP also cites instances where minorities are more likely to vote with Whites to elect candidates despite representing less than a majority. 

For example, North Carolina has seven African Americans in its state Senate and none of them were elected from majority African-American districts, showing that minorities can elect candidates of their choice without being an actual numerical majority in a district.

Regardless of how the Court rules, its decision will clarify how districts are drawn and thus affect minorities' opportunities to elect candidates of their choice. 

14 Penn Plaza v. Pyett

Another case, 14 Penn Plaza v. Pyett, is the third arbitration case the Court will hear this term. Arbitration is a procedure by which the parties involved in a dispute resolve the issue out of court by agreeing to be bound by the decision of a neutral person, known as an arbitrator.

In this case, a collective bargaining agreement between Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, Inc. (RAB) contains a clause prohibiting age discrimination, along with an arbitration clause requiring all contractual disputes between employees and employers to be submitted to arbitration. 

Three employees who were covered by that agreement filed a discrimination complaint against their employer, 14 Penn Plaza, claiming that they were transferred from their positions as night watchmen due to age discrimination. 

After an arbitrator denied the employees' claim, the employees filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court. 14 Penn Plaza claims that the employees don't have a right to sue for discrimination, because the bargaining agreement says that discrimination cases must be resolved by arbitration.

The Supreme Court will decide whether an arbitration agreement between a union and an employer can take away the right of individual union members to sue for discrimination. 

AT&T v. Hulteen

In AT&T v. Hulteen, the Court will decide if AT&T violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 by denying full service credit to women who took maternity leave before the PDA was passed. Service credit is a measure of the length of time employed, and is used to calculate pension amounts and other benefits.

The plaintiff, Noreen Hulteen, took maternity leave from AT&T in 1968.  At that time, women on maternity leave did not receive the same treatment as employees on leave for other temporary disabilities, so she did not receive credit for 210 days that she was away from work.

The PDA amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to state that pregnancy discrimination constitutes unlawful sex discrimination and ensures that pregnant women are treated in the same manner as any other employee who is not pregnant but has a circumstance that affects their ability to work.

Other Cases

Some of the other cases currently before the Supreme Court that have civil rights implications include: Altria Group, et al v. Good, et al, which will determine whether or not cigarette companies are deceptive when they claim cigarettes are "light", and Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, which will decide whether or not employees who cooperate with sexual harassment investigations are protected from being fired under Title VII.

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