2006 Supreme Court Term Could Be Critical for Civil Rights
Feature Story by Andrew Post - 11/20/2006The Supreme Court will hear a number of important cases during this session that are sure to grab the attention of civil rights advocates, who will be watching closely the decisions to gain a better understanding of where the current Court stands on critical civil rights issues.
The docket, which began on October 9, includes a number of cases critical to civil rights advocates including, two cases involving the issue of school diversity, two cases concerning the political expenditures of organized labor, a case that covers employment discrimination, and one that raises the issue of immigrant deportation.
"This could be a defining year for the Roberts Court," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). "The decisions in many of these cases could have wide-reaching effects on the lives of millions of Americans."
Oral arguments begin on December 4 in the set of cases, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, involving the use of voluntary, race-conscious school assignment plans.
Several amicus, or friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed in support of the school districts, which argue the programs are constitutional. Civil rights groups say that the decisions in these cases could have drastic consequences for how school districts handle racial integration.
"We are filing a brief in support of the school districts because we understand, as the nation's largest civil rights coalition, the value and importance of diversity in public education," said LCCR's Henderson. "We know that schools teach more than just core academic subjects. They teach our children cultural and social lessons that enable them to function in an increasingly diverse society and empower them to learn how we are the same, as well as how we are different."
In two cases involving workers' rights, Washington v. Washington Education Association and Davenport v. Washington Education Association, the Court will review a law that controls how labor unions spend money.
The Court will decide if labor unions can spend membership fees on political activities without their workers' consent. Workers' rights advocates say unions should not be able to perform this kind of spending without their members' approval.
In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., the Court will take up the issue of employment discrimination. In Ledbetter, a female employee complained that she was unfairly compensated and then denied a proper chance to file a claim. She argued that this violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender, and national origin.
In an amicus brief supporting the female employee, the National Partnership for Women and Families argues that to deny such a claim would be to ignore Title VII's language and intent. In a separate amicus brief, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argues that the lower court's arbitrary deadline is unjustified under Title VII because it will perpetuate the persistent gender gap in wages and salary.
The Court joined the immigration debate last month by hearing two cases concerning immigrants' rights. At issue in Lopez v. Gonzales, and Toledo-Flores v. U.S., was whether legal immigrants can be deported for drug offenses that are felonies in some states but only misdemeanors according to federal law.
Under a U.S. immigration law, conviction of an "aggravated felony," such as illegal drug trafficking, can result in automatic deportation. The ACLU filed an amicus brief in which it argued the law does not apply to simple drug possession. The Court heard oral arguments on October 3rd.
The divisive nature of these civil rights cases may prevent the Court from making decisions on narrow ground - something court observers saw happen last year on a regular basis. The Court will probably split more often this year giving the public a better understanding of where the Justices stand on important civil rights issues.
"Let us hope that during the upcoming session the strength of our civil rights can withstand the polemical tug of war the Supreme Court is accustomed to hosting," said LCCR's Henderson.
With the replacement of Justice O'Connor by Justice Alito, many litigants are focusing their attention on Justice Kennedy as the sole swing vote on the Court. Last year when Kennedy sided with the more conservative Justices - Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, Justice Thomas, and Justice Scalia - important civil rights cases resulted in rulings that troubled civil rights advocates.
On the other hand, Kennedy's vote enabled the civil rights community to win some important battles. His vote may well determine how pivotal this term will be for those who care about civil rights.