The Leadership Conference is working diligently to see that Tom Perez is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor. Perez is an eminently qualified public servant and consensus builder who has dedicated his career to ensuring that all individuals are treated fairly and have the opportunity to succeed. He has served with integrity and distinction at the local, state and national level, compiling an outstanding record of achievement.
Table of Contents
On the Hill
- The Americans With Disabilities Act, Act Two
- As Home Foreclosures Climb, Efforts to Help Troubled Homeowners Continue
- The Year in Judicial and Executive Nominations
- Advocating for Federal Leadership on Education
- Facing New Challenges with the 2010 Census
- Modernizing the Federal Poverty Measure
- Piecemeal Legislation, Raids Take Place of Immigration Overhaul
- Below the Surface
- Interview with Kathryn Kolbert
In the Courts
In the States
Leadership Conference Activities
Wrapping Up the Supreme Court's 2007-2008 Term
The 2007-2008 Supreme Court term was decidedly mixed for the civil rights community. On the one hand, the Court handed down a decision that is likely to reduce racial disparities in drug sentencing, along with two decisions that protect workers from retaliation for complaining about discrimination. On the other hand, the Court upheld a state voter identification law that threatens to disenfranchise minorities and the poor, as well as the controversial practice of execution by lethal injection.
The cases this term also led to some unusual voting alignments, as the justices occasionally crossed ideological boundaries. Kathleen Sullivan, former dean of Stanford Law School, recently told an audience at an American Constitutional Society event that the term can best be described as the "familiar ideological divide…but not every time."
The Court took steps to restore racial equity in criminal sentencing with its 7-2 decision in Kimbrough v. United States. In Kimbrough, the Court expanded judges' latitude to depart from harsh federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses, guidelines that are about 100 times more severe than sentencing guidelines for powder cocaine – even though there is no scientific or medical reason that justifies this wide disparity. The gap in sentencing has profoundly affected minorities, who are far more likely to be convicted for crimes involving crack cocaine than powder cocaine.
Also, in a decision that surprised many observers, the Supreme Court adopted a broad interpretation of workers' rights statutes in two cases. In Gomez-Perez v. Potter, the Court held (6-3) that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects against retaliation against employees who have filed discrimination suits. Similarly, in CBOCS v. Humphries, the Court held (7-2) that a Reconstruction law (Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866) barring discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts protects individuals against retaliation in the workplace and other settings for complaining about racial discrimination. The CBOCS decision upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which had reversed an earlier Supreme Court decision holding that Section 1981 did not apply to post-employment actions.
Unfortunately however, the term also had a number of decisions that have rolled back Americans’ civil rights.
In the companion cases Crawford v. Marion County Election Board and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita, the Supreme Court upheld (6-3) a controversial Indiana law requiring voters to show government-issued identification. The law had been widely criticized by civil rights and voting experts for creating unnecessary obstacles to voting for those individuals who are less likely to own a form of acceptable identification. These include people with disabilities, people on fixed incomes, seniors, and minorities. Notably, the state of Indiana failed to provide evidence that voter fraud, the purported justification for the law, was a real problem in the state.
In Baze v. Rees, the Court declared (7-2) that execution by lethal injection does not violate the 8th Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." The three-drug cocktails used in lethal injection have been controversial because data suggests that when the mixture does not work properly, it can cause extreme pain during execution.
The civil rights community expressed profound disappointment with the Court’s decision. Steven Shapiro, ACLU's legal director, said that the Supreme Court's 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." In a concurring opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens expressed concern about the continuing risk of racial discrimination in death penalty sentences and called for a re-examination of the United States' use of the death penalty.
The decisions of the Court adverse to rights claims have serious consequences that are difficult to undo. Civil rights advocates are still struggling to attain a legislative remedy for decisions of past terms – most notably 2007's Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which made it significantly more difficult for workers to prevail in pay discrimination claims.
The Civil Rights Monitor is an annual publication that reports on civil rights issues pending before the three branches of government. The Monitor also provides a historical context within which to assess current civil rights issues. Previous issues of the Monitor are available online. Browse or search the archives