Supreme Court Hands Down Surprises
By Bill Lucy
What do we make of the 2002-03 Supreme Court
session that just ended?
The same conservative court that put George
W. Bush in the White House handed down a series of decisions
that unexpectedly preserved affirmative action; eased the
burden on workers suing their employers for racial discrimination;
extended protection of the Family and Medical Leave Act to
millions of state workers; opened the door to more redistricting
plans that could thwart Republican legislative domination;
and upheld a funding mechanism for free legal services for
This same Supreme Court overturned rulings by
conservative lower courts and rejected the arguments of the
Bush administration on job discrimination and affirmative
action. Shockingly, even Justice Clarence Thomas voted the
right way once! making it easier for workers
to sue their employers for racial discrimination.
Of course, one case does not make Clarence Thomas
a born-again Thurgood Marshall jurist. Nor can one court term
reverse the political coup shamelessly abetted by the five
justices who selected George W. Bush as president
after he lost the popular vote to Al Gore in the 2000 election.
Nonetheless, there is a deeper trend on the
High Court worth noting. Namely, that some of the conservative
justices are increasingly comfortable asserting their ideological
independence from the radical Republican social agenda. For
example, three of the five justices who voted with the courts
majority in the University of Michigan law school decision
were appointed by Republican presidents. This court clearly
has balked at being a rubber stamp for Bushs assault
on groups that still demand democracy thats tolerant,
inclusive and just.
So in this neo-nationalist atmosphere, where
the Bush juggernaut has met little effective resistance from
an embedded media or a cowering Congress, the
Supreme Courts new-found backbone is a welcomed
if unexpected development.
Here is an overview of some important issues
that the Supreme Court made a positive and lasting imprint
on during the most recent term:
Affirmative action programs at least those closely
targeted -- are safe for now. In a pair of cases involving
the University of Michigan, the Supreme Court:
(1) upheld the use of race as one factor (among others) to
achieve diversity in college admissions;
(2) struck down the use of a scoring system to benefit minority
applicants to college;
(3) set a 25-year deadline on the need for affirmative action
to achieve the goals of diversity and equal opportunity.
In spite of the mixed ruling, supporters of
the University of Michigans affirmative action programs
hailed the courts verdict that race-conscious policies
are constitutionally valid and continue to be necessary in
education, employment and government contracting.
Job Discrimination Lawsuits
Clarence Thomas Votes Right Not White
The court made it significantly easier for workers
to win discrimination lawsuits against their employers in
cases where race, religion or national origin is one factor
among others in a dismissal or other adverse job action. The
court ruled that plaintiffs no longer had to present direct
evidence the equivalent of a smoking gun
to establish that discrimination was a motivating factor
in the employers action.
This case is particularly notable not only because
of its likely impact on hundreds of discrimination lawsuits
now pending, but also because the court unanimously rejected
the position argued by the Bush administration. The unanimous
decision also meant Justice Clarence Thomas actually, publicly,
finally voted the right way. He even wrote the courts
Family and Medical Leave
In a 6 to 3 ruling, the court said that state employees have
a right to sue their employers in federal court for alleged
violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The High Court
extended the protection of the federal law, which entitles
employees to take as much as 12 weeks of unpaid leave from
work for various reasons connected to family or illness, to
almost 5 million state employees as well as most private sector
workers who were already covered by its provisions.
In what may prove to be one of the most pivotal voting
rights cases in recent memory, the Supreme Court said that
states can develop redistricting plans that favor creating
more Democratic-leaning districts with smaller black voting
majorities. The effect of the courts ruling would be
to block a Republican goal of packing as many Democratic voters
in as few districts as possible, increasing the likelihood
of electing GOP candidates in surrounding districts.
The case stemmed from a Democratic-backed redistricting
plan in Georgia that reduced the black voting majorities in
three districts to just over 50 percent, while increasing
the number of black voters in neighboring districts.
Justice Sandra Day OConnor, writing for
the courts majority, stressed that 10 of 11 black Georgia
State senators and 33 of 34 black members of the Georgia House
voted for the redistricting plan.
Legal Services for the Poor
The court scored a major victory for poor people with a 5
to 4 majority ruling that allows states and the District of
Columbia to continue funding free legal services with proceeds
from a special trust account established by lawyers who represent
poor clients. The ruling was praised throughout the legal
services community. Don Saunders, a spokesperson for the National
Legal Aid and Defender Association, told the Washington Post:
Its an historic decision
critical to the entire justice system in the country. It would
have been devastating had it gone the other way.
Saunders said the funds produced $160 million
for legal services programs last year, more than 20 percent
of the total spent on legal services for the poor.
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