The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

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The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Supreme Court to Hear Key Civil Rights Cases This Term

Feature Story by Angela Okamura - 10/2/2007

With the start of the Supreme Court term of 2007-2008, civil rights groups will be avidly monitoring the cases that impact their communities.

Issues the Court will consider during this term include employment discrimination, voter ID laws, execution by lethal injection, and crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines.

On a panel held by the American Constitution Society on September 26, attorney Virginia Seitz said more and more cases involving employment discrimination are brought by individuals.

"Unions are what's missing from the docket," Seitz said. "The increasing trend of individual discrimination cases will be reflected in the Court this term, as organized labor claims have decreased."

Seitz cited Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. as an example, in which the Court narrowly interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One such individual discrimination case, Gomez-Perez v. Potter will force the Court to decide whether the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits retaliation by employers against employees who have filed discrimination suits against them.

Myrna Gomez-Perez, 45 sued her employer at the United States Postal Service claiming age discrimination when she was denied a transfer request, and was subsequently harassed by her employer and coworkers. She brought her case to court claiming that the ADEA protects against retaliatory acts by employers.

The Court agreed on September 25 to hear a case on controversial voter identification laws in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita, a move court-watchers see as a bold step into partisan politics months before the 2008 federal elections.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a law in early 2007 requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls in order to vote. Opponents of the law claim that it would suppress minorities' and poor people's votes, as they often do not have driver's licenses or other government identification. Proponents claim the laws are a tactic to combat voter fraud.

However, Indiana does not have any record of voter fraud in the state.  "We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will recognize this bedrock principle of our constitutional democracy," said Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana and lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

In Baze v. Rees, the Court will consider whether execution by lethal injection violates the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by way of being "cruel and unusual punishment."

The competing chemicals in lethal injection are at issue, as one chemical has been claimed to cause great pain, while another chemical in the injection paralyzes the muscles in the body so it can not express the pain. States such as California have postponed executions until the case is resolved.

Criminal sentencing guidelines will make its way to the Court, where the measure of judges' discretion in sentencing will be examined. In Kimbrough v. United States, the controversial crack-cocaine 100-1 ratio for sentencing is at issue. The current federal guideline states that the penalty for selling crack cocaine should be 100 times longer than the penalty for selling pure powder cocaine.

The ratio has come under attack by civil rights groups, who say that the law unfairly discriminates against blacks. Crack is cheaper and easier to distribute than powder cocaine, and blacks tend to sell crack. Whites tend to sell powder, which carries a lesser sentence.

In sentencing a man for selling crack, the trial court judge deviated from the recommended 19-22.5 years of prison time and handed down a sentence of 15 years, citing the man's successful return to society after his brief stint of selling drugs. The appellate court said it was unreasonable to depart from the guidelines and judges can not deviate from them in order to avoid the sentencing disparity caused by the 100-1 ratio.

In a previous sentencing case, Justice Breyer stated in Rita v. United States that federal guidelines are presumptively reasonable. This reasonableness standard will also play a part in the case, as the Court will have to answer the question: when trial court judges deviate from the guidelines, how should appellate courts decide if the sentence is reasonable?

The Supreme Court began its term October 1.

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