Supreme Court Hands Down Surprises Before Adjourning

By Bill Lucy
CBTU President

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 the poor.

Go figure.

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 court’s 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 Bush’s assault on groups that still demand democracy that’s 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 Court’s new-found backbone is a welcomed – if unexpected – development.

Court Overview

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
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 Michigan’s affirmative action programs hailed the court’s 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 employer’s 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 court’s deciding opinion.

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.

Voting Rights/Redistricting
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 court’s 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 O’Connor, writing for the court’s 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:

“It’s an historic decision…It’s 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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