Key Supreme Court Cases for Civil Rights
1857: In Dred Scott v. Sanford, Dred Scott, a slave in Missouri, sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived for a time in a "free" territory. The Court ruled against him, saying that under the Constitution, he was his master's property. At the same time, the Court also ruled that the Missouri Compromise (1821) -- under which Missouri was admitted to the union as a slave state, Maine as a free state and slavery prohibited in the territory that later became Kansas and Nebraska -- was unconstitutional because it deprived slaveowners of their property.
1896: In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court upheld a Louisiana law requiring restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and other public places to serve African Americans in separate, but ostensibly equal, accommodations. In establishing the separate but equal" doctrine, the Court said that segregation is "universally recognized as within the competency of states in the exercise of their police powers." In the sole dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan -- a former slaveowner -- said the ruling would "stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens."
1923: In an important precedent for what would become the Latino civil rights movement, the Court struck down a state ban on foreign language instruction in private schools in Meyer v. Nebraska. The law had prohibited all pre-eighth grade foreign language instruction, but the Court said such a ban violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
1938: In Missouri ex el Gaines v. Canada, the Supreme Court ruled that Missouri could not satisfy its obligation to provide equal protection by sending an African American resident to an out-of-state law school and that Lionel Gaines must thus be admitted to the all-white University of Missouri School of Law. This case was the beginning of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's effort to chip away at the separate-but-equal doctrine.
1950: In the Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents cases, the Court struck down segregation of African American students in law and graduate schools. The Justice Department, in its brief to the Court, said it believed Plessy was unconstitutional and should be overturned. NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers, led by Thurgood Marshall, began to devise a strategy that would force the Court to re-examine the constitutionality of the separate-but-equal doctrine.
1954: In Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren, reading his first major opinion from the bench, said: "We conclude, unanimously, that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
1955: In Brown v. Board II, the Supreme Court held that school systems must abolish their racially dual systems, but could do so "with all deliberate speed."
1956: The Supreme Court, without comment, affirmed a lower court ruling declaring segregation of the Montgomery bus system illegal, giving a major victory to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the thousands of anonymous African Americans who had sustained the bus boycott in the face of violence and intimidation.
1958: The Supreme Court upheld the rule of law in Cooper v. Aaron, stating that official resistance and community violence could not justify delays in implementing desegregation efforts.
1968: In Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., the Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 bans racial discrimination in housing by private, as well as governmental, housing providers.
1971: In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Court ruled busing was an appropriate legal tool for addressing illegal segregation of the schools.
1971: In Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits not only intentional job discrimination, but also employer practices that have a discriminatory effect on minorities and women. The Court held that tests and other employment practices that disproportionately screened out African American applicants for jobs at the Duke Power Company were prohibited when the tests were not shown to be job-related.
1974: The rights of "Limited English Proficient" (LEP) students were greatly enhanced by the Supreme Court's ruling in Lau v. Nichols. The case involved a class-action suit brought by non-English-speaking Chinese students living in San Francisco, who alleged a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act because only 1,700 of about 35,000 Chinese students in need of special English instruction were actually receiving it. The Court ruled that failing to accommodate LEP students' language needs is a violation of their right to a federally funded education free from national origin discrimination, and makes a "mockery of public education."
1974: In Milliken v. Bradley, a case involving the Detroit metropolitan area, the Court effectively halted school busing at a city's borders. The Court's 5-4 decision blocked Detroit's city-suburb desegregation plan that would have involved busing across school district boundaries. Ignoring evidence of state governments' past and continuing involvement in housing and school segregation, the Court said that "local control" was an important tradition in education. The decision allowed for proof of "interdistrict violations," while placing heavy burdens on plaintiffs in future cases.
1976: In General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, the Court ruled that firing or otherwise penalizing pregnant workers was not an unlawful form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This decision was legislatively overturned by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.
1977: In Milliken II, the Court ordered the state of Michigan, along with the Detroit school system, to finance a plan to address the educational deficits faced by African American children. These deficits, the Court suggested, arose out of enforced segregation and could not be cured by physical desegregation alone. This decision eased in part the impact of denying interdistrict desegregation in Milliken I.
1978: In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that the medical school's special admission program setting aside a fixed number of seats for minorities violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At the same time, however, in an opinion written by Justice Powerll, it ruled that race could lawfully be considered as one of several factors in making admissions decisions. In his opinion, Justice Powell noted that lawful affirmative action programs may be based on reasons other than redressing past discrimination -- in particular, a university's educational interest in attaining a diverse student body could justify appropriate affirmative action programs.
1980: In City of Mobile v. Bolden , the Court narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It held that, in order to establish a violation, the government must prove that any change in voting practices that harms minorities was actually motivated by discriminatory intent. This holding was legislatively overturned by the 1982 Voting Rights Act Amendments.
1984: In Grove City v. Bell, the Supreme Court interpreted Title IX very narrowly, constraining its protections to the limited program within an institution that actually received federal funding - e.g., a college's financial aid department - rather than covering the educational institution as a whole. Under this interpretation, athletic programs (considered to be among the most unequal of all college and university programs) were virtually immune from Title IX scrutiny because they rarely receive direct federal funding. This decision was legislatively reversed with the enactment of the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1988.
1986: The Court emphasized that lawful affirmative action programs cannot require that incumbent white workers be discharged to make way for minority workers. In Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education, the Court held that a public employer may not lay off more senior white workers to protect the jobs of less senior black workers.
1986: In Bowers v. Hardwick, the Court upheld Georgia's state law making sodomy a crime. The Court said that constitutional rights to privacy did not encompass what it called "homosexual sodomy," and that the law served a legitimate state interest, namely promoting what the court defined as "majority sentiments about ... morality."
1986: In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, a unanimous Court ruled that sexual harassment is a form of unlawful job discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
1987: In United States v. Paradise, the Court upheld a one-for-one promotion requirement (i.e., for every white candidate promoted, a qualified African American would also be promoted) in the Alabama Department of Public Safety, finding it to be narrowly tailored and necessary to eliminate the effects of Alabama's long-term discrimination which the lower court had found "blatant and continuous."
1987: In Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County, the Court upheld an employer's affirmative action plan that allowed gender to be considered as a positive factor when choosing among qualified candidates for jobs in which women were severely underrepresented. The employer developed its plan after its review found that no women were employed in any of its 238 skilled craft jobs. Both Paul Johnson (the male plaintiff claiming reverse discrimination) and Diane Joyce (the woman who ultimately received the promotion to road dispatcher) had the requisite four years' experience, although Ms. Joyce's experience was more recent and arguably more relevant. Mr. Johnson received a score of 75 to Ms. Joyce's 73 in the graded oral interview, where 70 was a passing score. The Court upheld the county's use of Ms. Joyce's gender as a positive factor in choosing between these similarly-qualified candidates -- especially since no woman had ever held the position of road dispatcher.
1988: In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection, the Supreme Court ruled that the construction of a Forest Service road through an ancient site held sacred by several tribes did not infringe upon the tribes' constitutionally-protected religious freedoms.
1989: The Court's ruling in City of Richmond v. Croson invalidated Richmond, Virginia's local ordinance establishing a minority business set-aside program.
The Court, for the first time, adopted the strict scrutiny standard of review in assessing affirmative action programs, demanding that such programs be supported by a "compelling government interest" and narrowly tailored to ensure the program fits that interest. While not rejecting all governmental race-conscious remedies, the Court set a very high standard for their continued use by state and local governments.
1989: In a series of decisions, the Supreme Court dramatically cut back the circumstances under victims of alleged job discrimination could bring and win cases. For example, Wards Cove Packing Co. Inc., v. Antonio essentially undercut the 1971 Griggs ruling by flipping the burden of proof to plaintiffs to establish that an employer's use of a practice that has an adverse impact on minorities is unjustified -- at the same time greatly expanding deference to employers using practices with such discriminatory effects.
Another decision -- Patterson v. McLean Credit Union -- held that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 covers only job discrimination at the hiring stage and is thus powerless to address racial harassment and other forms of discrimination that take place once a worker is on the job. These and other decisions narrowly interpreting Title VII were legislatively overturned by the 1991 Civil Rights Act.
1990: In Missouri v. Jenkins, the Court permitted lower courts to order school authorities to increase spending on education remedies even when voters rejected referenda raising taxes.
1991: In Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that the state no longer had to show a "compelling governmental interest" to justify generally applicable laws that applied to limit or infringe upon religious exercise. The ruling in this case, which involved the denial of unemployment benefits to two Oregon men who were fired after taking peyote as part of a worship ceremony of the Native American Church, was widely attacked by major religious leaders as a major blow to religious freedom.
1991: In UAW v. Johnson Controls, the Court made clear that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits companies from firing or excluding only women from jobs that may pose reproductive health hazards, even though the jobs may pose similar threats to men.
1993: In Shaw v. Reno, the Supreme Court called into question legislative redistricting plans that create districts likely to elect a member of a minority group. The sharply divided Court ruled 5-4 that North Carolina's 12th Congressional District, which gave the state its first African American member of Congress since Reconstruction, was so "bizarrely shaped" that it could violate the rights of white voters. Such "bizarre" districts, the majority suggested, could trigger strict scrutiny even though white voters could demonstrate no specific harm to themselves. In other words, an individual white voter could challenge a redistricting decision by simply alleging that race was a decisionmaking factor in drawing district lines -- even absent evidence that the white plaintiffs' ability to participate had been impaired or that their votes had been diluted.
1993: The Supreme Court issued a key decision interpreting the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) in Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins. This decision cut back protections for older workers under the ADEA, by holding that an adverse employment decision that is based on a factor other than age does not violate the ADEA -- even where the decisionmaking factor is motivated by a factor correlated to age, such as years of service or pension status.
1995: In Adarand Constructors v. Pena, the Supreme Court extended Croson to hold that strict scrutiny also applies to federal affirmative action programs. Again, however, the Court refused to reject properly-designed affirmative action. As Justice O'Connor emphasized: "The unhappy persistence of both the practice and the lingering effects of racial discrimination against minorities in this country is an unfortunate reality and government is not disqualified from acting in response to it."
1996: In Romer v. Evans, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a Colorado state referendum that would have overturned local laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination. The Court held that the referendum was motivated by irrational bias against gays and lesbians and served no legitimate government interest, thus violating basic federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
1998: Bragdon v. Abbott was the first Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) case to make its way to the Court, which held, among other things, that HIV-positive individuals are protected under the ADA.
1998: In Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, the Court clarified its earlier rulings on sexual harassment, reaffirming that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires employers to ensure a workplace free from sexual and other forms of discriminatory harassment.
1998 and 1999: In Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District and Davis v. Monroe County School District, the Supreme Court made clear that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires schools to take action to prevent and stop the harassment of students by teachers or other students. Those decisions, however, also severely limited the circumstances under which victims of such harassment may receive money damages for their injuries.
1999: In another significant victory for disability rights advocates, the Court reaffirmed in Olmstead v. L.C. that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bars the unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities in state institutions. As the Court noted, such segregation is often motivated by irrational fears, stereotypes, and patronizing attitudes, and unfairly relegates individuals with disabilities to second-class status.
1999: However, the Court significantly limited the Americans with Disabilities Act's reach in a trio of cases ( Sutton v. United Airlines, Murphy v. United Parcel Service, and Albertsons v. Kirkingberg). The Court held that any determination of whether an individual has a disability triggering the ADA's protections must consider any mitigating measures taken to control the effects of the individual's impairment, such as medication or therapy. Under this decision, for example, an individual who controls the effects of depression through medication may be unable to claim the ADA's protections when he or she suffers discrimination because of that depression.
2000: In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the Court ruled that the Boy Scouts' First Amendment rights of free expression and association would be violated by enforcement of New Jersey's state antidiscrimination law to prohibit them from dismissing a gay Scoutmaster.
2000: In a 5-4 decision in Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents, the Court cut back age discrimination protections for employees of state governments, ruling that the Eleventh Amendment bars state employees from suing their employers in federal court for money damages under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The Court based its ruling in part on the majority's conclusion that a state's age discrimination is not necessarily unconstitutional because such age discrimination is not necessarily irrational.
2001: Similarly, the Court held in University of Alabama v. Garrett that the Eleventh Amendment bars suits in federal courts by state employees seeking to recover money damages for discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 5-4 majority said, among other things, that although a state's discrimination on the basis of disability may be "hardhearted," it is not necessarily unconstitutional.
2003: On June 23, 2003, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the use of equal opportunity policies in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. Prior to the decision, several organizations and individuals filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of equal opportunity. Since the decision, many reports assessing equal opportunity in higher education have been published.
2012: On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court issued a complicated ruling in National Federation Of Independent Business et al. V. Sebelius, Secretary of Health And Human Services, et al. that upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health care reform law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2010. While the decision ultimately supported health care reform, it also created some new problems for ACA implementation and signaled a continued threat to the Constitution’s role as a protector of civil rights.