To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People For the American Way
Date: September 25, 2014
Subject: PFAW Foundation’s Supreme Court 2014-2015 Term Preview
The beginning of a new Supreme Court term has become a time to worry, “What’s next?” In the past two terms alone, often in 5-4 decisions, the Roberts Court has severely undermined the Voting Rights Act, continued its assault on the American people’s efforts to limit money in politics, strengthened the hand of employers who discriminate, significantly eroded church-state separation, discovered religious rights for for-profit corporations seeking to deny female employees needed contraception coverage, undercut unions, and found ways to help large corporations bypass laws designed to limit their power over small businesses and ordinary people.
As bad as the Roberts Court has been, there have also been some good decisions in the most recent terms. For instance, the Court struck down the odious Defense of Marriage Act, upheld the EPA's general authority to issue regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and unanimously recognized our Fourth Amendment right to privacy concerning our smart phones.
The 2014-2015 Term is set to begin on October 6, the traditional First Monday in October, and the Court will be hearing a number of important cases. At the same time, perhaps half the cases it will hear this term have not been determined or announced, and there is substantial speculation on whether it will hear cases on several high-profile issues, marriage equality most prominent among them. Below is a summary of some of the major cases the Court may hear this term, along with cases already scheduled that we will be following.
CASES THAT THE COURT MIGHT HEAR
If the Court accepts a marriage equality case, it will obviously become the blockbuster case of the term (and perhaps the decade). The Court has already been asked to hear appeals of pro-equality rulings by three circuit courts: From the Tenth Circuit are Herbert v. Kitchen (Utah) and Smith v. Bishop (Oklahoma). From the Fourth Circuit are Rainey v. Bostic, Schaefer v. Bostic, and McQuigg v. Bostic (all Virginia). From the Seventh Circuit are Bogan v. Baskin (Indiana) and Walker v. Wolf (Wisconsin). While states and government officials who lost in the lower courts are filing the appeals, the couples who won the cases are also urging the Court to hear the appeals, so there can finally be a national resolution to the issue.
Should one of the remaining circuit courts uphold a state marriage ban, the resulting split among circuits on such a major constitutional issue would almost guarantee review by the Supreme Court. But if every circuit continues to rule the same way, the Justices might decide to let the issue be resolved there.
Conservatives like Scalia and Thomas, who have in case after case shown their hostility to LGBT equality but may be unsure of how Kennedy would vote, might not be willing to risk a Supreme Court precedent that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. From their perspective, if they can’t change the outcome around the country, why make it worse by adding a jurisprudential nightmare from the nation’s highest court that would taint American law for decades to come?
For Justices likely to recognize the constitutional right to marriage equality, the calculation might be different. They, too, not knowing Kennedy’s position, might not want to risk a 5-4 ruling in the “wrong” direction on a major constitutional and societal issue. But even if they could be certain of being in the majority, they might find advantages to having the Court stay out. Justice Ginsburg, for instance, has suggested publicly that Roe v. Wade went “too far, too fast,” provoking a backlash that could otherwise have been avoided. If the legal question of marriage equality is being decided rightly in all the circuit courts, some Justices might rather leave well enough alone. In fact, Justice Ginsburg told a group of law students in mid-September that without a circuit split, she saw “no urgency” for the Court to take up the issue now, although she added that she expects the Court to take it up “sooner or later.”
Should the Court grant cert on one or more of the appeals, it could answer a number of critically important questions in addition to whether states can prohibit same-sex couples from marrying.
Exactly which constitutional right do the bans violate? While numerous courts have ruled in favor of same-sex couples, they have been anything but unanimous in their reasoning: Some have suggested that the bans violate the Due Process Clause, because the longstanding, fundamental right to marry includes the right to marry someone of the same sex. Other judges indicate that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they deny the right to marry based on the sex of the people seeking to get married. Still others suggest that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they discriminate against gays and lesbians. While the different legal rationales would all have the same immediate result (marriage equality), they could create very different legal precedents and have very different impacts down the line as lower courts consider other types of discrimination, whether aimed at gays and lesbians, at transgender people, or at others.
A Supreme Court ruling might decide what level of scrutiny the Equal Protection Clause requires for laws that discriminate against gay people, an issue not squarely faced in previous cases. Most government classifications are subject to – and easily pass – “rational basis” scrutiny by the courts: The law is constitutional as long as it’s rationally related to some legitimate government interest. (The Court has said that animus against gays and lesbians is not a legitimate purpose, which in the past has let it bypass the question as to whether anti-gay laws warrant more scrutiny from the courts.)
But a few types of laws trigger heightened Equal Protection scrutiny. Sex-based classifications are subject to intermediate scrutiny: They must be substantially related to an important government interest. Race-based classifications are generally subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level: They must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. If the Court rules that laws discriminating against lesbians and gays warrant some level of heightened scrutiny, that would have an enormous impact nationwide on all kinds of laws that discriminate against lesbians and gays, not just marriage bans.
The Court’s discussion of this issue could also shed light on whether eliminating private discrimination against LGBT people is (in the Court’s eyes) a compelling government interest. This could have an enormous impact as courts consider right wing challenges to anti-discrimination laws on the basis of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act or state-law analogs.
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act strategically launched lawsuits in four different circuits challenging federal subsidies for millions of Americans buying health insurance on federally-run exchanges. The circuits were apparently selected to maximize the possibility of a circuit split, which in turn would maximize the likelihood of getting the case heard by the Roberts Court, which (they hope) would deliver a crippling blow to Obamacare. Decisions have been reached in two of the circuits, although one has since been vacated.
Section 1311 of the ACA says states should set up insurance exchanges, while Section 1321 of the Act says the federal government can set one up if a state doesn't. Subsidies are available for less well-off people getting health insurance through an exchange, based on the amount the person pays for the insurance s/he is enrolled in through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. The law’s opponents hope to have the Supreme Court rule that Congress intended for subsidies to be unavailable to Americans purchasing insurance through the federally-established exchanges that the law calls for in cases where the state does not step in. In other words, the argument is that Congress intended to undercut the financial viability of the law and thwart its central purpose.
A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit rejected this wild claim in King v. Burwell. However, two far right judges on the D.C. Circuit formed a majority in a three-judge panel ruling actually agreeing with the Obama care opponents in Halbig v. Burwell. Dissenting Judge Harry Edwards recognized the lawsuit as a “not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” noting that “[i]t is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to crumble.” The full D.C. Circuit subsequently vacated the ruling and will consider the issue en banc, and most observers expect a ruling more like the Fourth Circuit’s.
But even if that happens, there are still lawsuits percolating in Indiana (Seventh Circuit) and Oklahoma (Tenth Circuit), so the hoped-for circuit split may yet occur. If it does, the Roberts Court is almost certain to consider the issue. While the case is transparently political and legally weak, that did not stop the conservative Justices when it came to the Commerce Clause challenge to the individual mandate.
The Roberts Court may hear one or more cases involving religious nonprofits that oppose the ACA’s contraception coverage requirement, in a sequel to Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. In that case, the Roberts Court gave certain for-profit corporations religious liberty rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), then completely rewrote the law to give the chain store the right to “exercise” its religion by refusing to comply with the ACA’s contraception coverage requirement.
Under RFRA, a federal law cannot impose a substantial burden on a person’s religious exercise unless it is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and it is the least restrictive means of doing so. In Hobby Lobby, the Roberts Court concluded that the corporation and its owners suffered a “substantial” burden” on their religious exercise because the owners were offended by the contraception coverage requirement, even though it did not restrict or burden what they may believe or do. The majority also concluded that the law was not the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s interest in women’s health, because the Administration offers religious nonprofits an accommodation: They are exempt if they simply sign a form certifying that they are a religious nonprofit that objects to the provision of contraceptive services, and provide a copy of that form to their insurance issuer or third-party administrator, which then has the responsibility to pay for and provide the coverage. (Churches, in contrast, are wholly exempt.) The Roberts Court concluded that the federal government can make this accommodation available to for-profit corporations, meaning the coverage requirement is not the least restrictive means of achieving the ACA’s goal.
But three days later, the Court issued a temporary injunction against enforcing even this accommodation against Wheaton College, a non-profit religious institution that argued that the accommodation substantially burdens its religious freedom. This prompted a furious dissent from the three women Justices. Although the merits of the case are still being argued before a lower federal court, this was an ominous sign of how the Roberts Court will address the legal question when it inevitably reaches the high court.
Another high-profile case (or one similar to it) that may reach the Court involves Little Sisters of the Poor. This religious nonprofit organization, too, has a religious objection to the accommodation that was designed to meet its religious objections, arguing that the form is like a permission slip that would trigger contraception coverage, making the nuns complicit in sin. However, the Little Sisters’ insurer is classified as a “church plan,” which is actually exempt from the ACA requirement. So regardless of whether the Little Sisters signed the form, their employees would still not have the contraception coverage. Nevertheless, last January, while its RFRA suit against the contraception coverage provision was before the Tenth Circuit (where it is still pending), the Supreme Court enjoined the federal government from enforcing the law until a final resolution on the merits.
It seems likely that there will be a request that this issue be considered by the Supreme Court at some point this term, either through one of these cases or one similar to them.
CASES CURRENTLY BEFORE THE COURT
EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION AND WORKERS’ RIGHTS
The Supreme Court is to decide to what extent employers can treat pregnant workers temporarily unable to work differently from other workers temporarily unable to work.
This case involves Peggy Young, a pregnant employee of UPS with temporary medical restrictions on how much she could safely lift. UPS did not make any accommodations for her, such as temporary alternative work. As a result, she spent several months on unpaid leave, during which she lost her medical coverage.
In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that discriminating against employees who are pregnant was not sex discrimination under Title VII. Congress corrected that interpretation of the law in 1978 with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which has two relevant provisions. First, it specifies that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
The second provision explains how to apply that general principle: It says that women affected by pregnancy “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” This establishes a basis of comparison. So while a typical sex discrimination case looks at how a female plaintiff is treated in comparison to similarly situated men, a PDA case looks at how she is treated in comparison to non-pregnant workers with similar ability (or inability) to work.
UPS’s collective bargaining contract calls for UPS to accommodate temporarily disabled employees if the disability is due to an on-the-job injury, or if they have lost their DOT certification to drive. UPS also accommodates employees who have a permanent impairment under the Americans With Disabilities Act. UPS says its policy is “pregnancy-blind:” They claim they are treating Young the same way they’d treat a non-pregnant employee whose injury doesn’t fit any of the above conditions.
But Young argues that isn’t the proper analysis under the PDA. She points out that UPS would have made an accommodation for someone “similar in their ability or inability to work” to her if they were in one of those three categories. So, she concludes, the plain text of the PDA requires UPS to accommodate her, as well.
The Supreme Court is to decide if employers can deny overtime pay to employees at “customer fulfillment” distribution centers for the time they spend waiting for mandatory security screenings.
This is a class-action lawsuit brought by Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, two former employees of Integrity Staffing Solutions, which provides workers to work in the warehouses of companies like Amazon.com. At the end of the shift, the company requires every employee to go through a security check before they leave the facility to make sure they aren’t stealing the merchandise. The employees wait as long as 25 minutes to be searched. Busk and Castro claim that they should have been paid overtime for this time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as should all current employees, as well.
FLSA requires overtime pay when a covered employee works more than 40 hours in a workweek. In 1947, Congress helped define what counts as “work” by passing the Portal-to-Portal Act (PPA), which says that FLSA’s overtime requirement doesn’t apply to activities that are “preliminary” or “postliminary” to an employee’s primary job responsibilities. In a 1956 case called Steiner v. Mitchell, the Supreme Court interpreted the PPA as requiring overtime only for tasks that are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workman are employed.”
Busk and Castro say that any activity required by and beneﬁtting the employer (such as the security searches) are part of the actual job, not “postliminary” to it, so they count as time at work under FLSA and should generate overtime pay. They get support from an amicus brief submitted by the National Employment Lawyers Association, which details how loss-prevention activities have become integrated into the modern retail work routine, making searches like those at issue here part of an employee’s principal activities.
The workers won at the Ninth Circuit, but the court used different reasoning: that the searches are “postliminary” (so the Portal-to-Portal Act applies), but that they are an “integral and indispensable part” of the workers’ principal activities and therefore subject to overtime pay. Integrity (supported by an amicus brief from the Obama Administration) asserts that the searches are “postliminary” to work, are not an “integral and indispensable part” of the employees’ principal activities and, therefore, don’t trigger the overtime requirement.
Part of the company’s argument seems to be a results-based pitch to a corporate-friendly Court: In its certiorari petition urging the Justices to hear its appeal, Integrity Staffing wrote that since the Ninth Circuit ruling, “plaintiffs’ lawyers have brought nationwide class actions against a number of major employers—including Apple, Amazon.com, and CVS—seeking back pay (plus overtime and penalties) for time spent in security screenings.” Notice that it isn’t employees who are suing, but “plaintiffs’ lawyers,” a framing that is red meat for right-wing ideologues. This argument also seems to have less to do with discerning congressional intent and more to do with protecting large corporations.
The Supreme Court is to decide if employers can escape liability for illegal discrimination by arguing that the EEOC failed to make a sufficiently good-faith attempt to reach a settlement with the employer.
Mach Mining has never hired a woman for a mining position. A woman who had been turned down several times for a coal mining job filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a step that Title VII requires before filing a lawsuit. EEOC looked into the allegation, found it had merit, and – again, as required by Title VII – sought to negotiate an end to the alleged sex discrimination “by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion” before suing. After several months without success, the EEOC notified the company that it felt further efforts would be futile and initiated a lawsuit. Mach Mining says the case should be dismissed on the grounds that the EEOC didn’t make a good-faith conciliation effort. In response, the EEOC says Title VII doesn’t allow such a defense.
While several other circuits have ruled otherwise, the Seventh Circuit in this case concluded that Title VII cannot be interpreted to allow courts to inquire into the adequacy of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts. For one thing, Title VII has no express provision for an affirmative defense based on a defect in the EEOC’s conciliation’s efforts. It also calls for the EEOC to “endeavor” to end the discrimination through “informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” If it can’t reach a result “acceptable to the Commission,” it can sue. The Seventh Circuit interpreted this as giving the EEOC great deference.
The court also noted that Title VII makes the process confidential, with penalties for making the information public without the consent of everyone concerned. That could prevent the EEOC from showing the court the evidence that it had sought to conciliate in good faith. It seems unlikely that Congress wrote Title VII to require the EEOC to defend its conciliation efforts in court but made its ability to do so dependent on the permission of the employer being sued. The court also concluded that there would be no meaningful standard of review. For instance, just how hard should the agency pursue an agreement?
A Supreme Court ruling for the employer could give employers a significant tool to stymie legitimate lawsuits against unlawful employment discrimination. As the Seventh Circuit wrote:
Simply put, the conciliation defense tempts employers to turn what was meant to be an informal negotiation into the subject of endless disputes over whether the EEOC did enough before going to court. Such disputes impose significant costs on both sides, as well as on the court, and to what end?
All the employer should legitimately hope to gain is some unspecified quantum of additional efforts at conciliation by the EEOC. The result of such a defense, as we have said in a closely related context, is to “protract and complicate Title VII litigation, and with little or no offsetting benefit.”
The Supreme Court is to address whether a state prison’s prohibiting a Muslim prisoner from growing a half-inch beard violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
This case originated with a handwritten request to the Supreme Court from Gregory Holt (aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad), a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas, to hear his case. He states that his religious beliefs require him to have a beard, and he seeks to grow a half-inch beard. The state Department of Corrections prohibits beards generally, but allows quarter-inch beards grown for medical reasons. Muhammad sees his request as a compromise (since his religious beliefs really would have him grow it much longer) that has been accepted in prisons elsewhere.
Since he is in a state prison, Muhammad’s case is governed by a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. Passed unanimously by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA requires prisons accepting federal funds to give greater religious liberty protections to inmates than is required by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. Similar to the better-known Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was at issue in Hobby Lobby, RLUIPA is triggered when the government imposes a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of a person confined to an institution. When that happens, the action can be upheld only if the government can demonstrate that the burden: “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
The state argues that the no-beard policy furthers the compelling government interests in prison safety and security, and that the proposed half-inch accommodation would not be as effective as the no-beard rule in achieving those purposes. For instance, they provide the opinions of penal experts that prisoners could use the beards to hide contraband, and that escaped prisoners could too easily and quickly change their appearance simply by shaving. Muhammad (now represented by counsel) argues that the lower courts, which ruled against him, did not provide the strict scrutiny of the state’s arguments that is required by RLUIPA.
In Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court significantly rewrote RFRA, watering down the “substantial burden” requirement and applying the religious liberty law to for-profit corporations. Neither factor is relevant to this case, meaning the Court could rule in favor of Muhammad without rewriting the law. But the Roberts Court is known for playing the “long game.” Even if the Court rules unanimously for Muhammad, they may not all agree on the reasoning: The conservatives could write an opinion designed to be cited in future RFRA litigation strengthening the hands of those on the right who would reshape RFRA from a shield against government oppression into a sword.
The Supreme Court is to address whether Alabama engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering when it drew new state House and Senate district lines that channeled large numbers of African Americans into districts that were already majority-minority.
The GOP-controlled Alabama state legislature enacted a redistricting plan that transferred a significant portion of the black population that had previously been in majority-white districts into districts that were already majority-black. In so doing, the legislature was seeking to achieve certain percentages of black voters in the majority-black districts. At issue is whether legislators engaged in an unconstitutional effort to separate voters by race, or whether they followed traditional redistricting criteria in a way that was necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
Due to population shifts, majority-black districts established after the 2000 Census lost population and had to be redrawn after the 2010 Census to bring in new people. In some cases, the population loss was disproportionately white, meaning that a significantly higher percentage of the remaining population was African American than before. In redrawing the lines while keeping the same number of majority-black districts, the legislature made two decisions that led to what some call “bleaching” – drawing lines so that large numbers of African Americans in majority-white districts would be redistricted into supermajority-black districts, and diminishing African Americans’ political influence in much of the state.
First, they chose to reduce the permissible population difference between districts from 10% (the 2000 standard) to 2%. To achieve district populations that close to each other, many more people would have to be drawn into the modified black-majority districts than would otherwise have been necessary. That huge numbers of those people would be blacks removed from majority-white districts was determined by the second decision: Ostensibly to comply with the requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (this was before Shelby County) that new lines not lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise, the African American percentages in the redrawn majority-minority districts should be at least whatever they had become in 2010.
This reapportionment was upheld by a divided three-judge federal district court. The majority concluded that race was not the predominant factor in drawing the redistricting boundaries, so that they need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny as in the 1993 Shaw v. Reno case. The majority also concluded that even if strict scrutiny applied, the legislative boundaries were narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling purpose of compliance with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which applied at the time. The plaintiffs in this case – the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and state Democrats – challenge those conclusions, arguing that legislators had misinterpreted Section 5, that race was impermissibly the overriding criterion used by legislators in drawing lines, and that the redistricting plan violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
FREE SPEECH AND SIGN REGULATIONS
The Supreme Court will hear a church’s Free Speech challenge to city rules regulating the size and placement of various types of signs, which affect the signs it puts up to direct people to its church services.
This case was brought by a small church (25-30 adult members) in Arizona that places signs up to invite people to its weekly services and inform them where they are being held. Good News Church and its pastor Clyde Reed are urging the Court to strike down the town of Gilbert’s sign ordinance, which treats some signs (such as directional signs for events, like a fair or, in this case, a church service) differently from others (like political, real estate, or ideological signs). The different types of signs have different rules on how large they can be, and where and when they can be posted. Good News Church argues the law is an unconstitutional content-based infringement of its First Amendment rights. The lower court had upheld it as content-neutral.
Gilbert regulations generally require a permit before posting a sign, with a number of exceptions that can be posted without a permit. These exceptions (each with specific size, number, and placement rules) include construction signs, open house signs, parking signs, building identification signs, garage sale signs, street address signs, and restaurant menu signs. The church devotes much of its focus to three of the exceptions:
The church has signs in the first category to tell people about their weekly church services in the space they rent. The maximum size is smaller than political and ideological signs, fewer can be posted, and they cannot stay up nearly as long. Represented by the far-right Alliance Defending Freedom, Good News Church argues that the city is violating its First Amendment rights by applying different rules to different types of noncommercial signs based on their content. According to the church, any classification based on what a sign says is content-based and therefore subject to the highest level of scrutiny. And if the law’s purpose is, say, to promote traffic safety or aesthetics, then what difference should it make if the sign is for a church service, political candidate, or particular ideology?
A divided panel of the Ninth Amendment disagreed, ruling against the church. It said the distinctions among different types of signs are content-neutral (and thus subject to a somewhat lower level of scrutiny) because Gilbert’s interests in regulating temporary signs are unrelated to the specific content or message of the sign. Each exemption is based on objective criteria related not to the sign’s message, but to the reason for the exemption (such as need for communication about elections, or the need to let event sponsors inform people how to get to the event).
HOLDING FRAUDULENT CORPORATIONS ACCOUNTABLE
The Court is to decide whether the clock stops on a deadline to sue for securities fraud when someone files a class action suit.
This case relates to a key 1974 precedent called American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, where the Supreme Court ruled that the filing of a class action lawsuit stops the clock (“tolls” in legal parlance) on the statute of limitations on filing federal antitrust claims for all potential members of the class, including those who are not actively involved with or even aware of the class action lawsuit. So if a court then doesn’t certify the class for some reason or dismisses its claims, but makes that decision after the statute of limitations has passed, those who would have been included in the class have not lost their opportunity to have their day in court just because they hadn’t made an individual filing in the case.
The current case relates to the financial meltdown of the 2000s and involves federal laws in the Securities Act of 1933 prohibiting sellers of securities from misleading investors. The law has two key time limits: (1) You generally have one year to file a lawsuit, and that can be a year after the untrue or misleading statement is made or discovered. (2) But there is an additional limit, one that restricts just how long after the fact you have to discover the wrongdoing: “In no event shall any such action be brought … more than three years after the security was bona fide offered to the public [or, depending on which section of the law is involved] more than three years after the sale.” The Second Circuit concluded that the American Pipe rule did not apply to this statute.
One of the great benefits of class action litigation is that it protects the rights of people who cannot afford to themselves engage in litigation and may not even realize they have been wronged. It also vastly enhances our society’s ability to hold large corporations responsible when they violate people’s rights. The rule from American Pipe has served that purpose well. But in other contexts, the Roberts Court has significantly undercut the ability of Americans to utilize class actions to protect their rights. If the Court rules that American Pipe doesn’t apply in the securities fraud context, it will be important to see if its reasoning also undercuts American Pipe as a precedent in other contexts.
The Court is to address what investors need to prove to hold companies accountable for material misstatements in investment material.
When responding to a public offering of company shares, investors may rely on a company’s registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, investors can sue if that statement “contained an untrue statement of a material fact or omitted to state a material fact [that was] necessary to make the statements therein not misleading.” This case asks what investors need to prove if the purportedly “untrue statement” was the company’s opinion that it wasn’t breaking the law.
Omnicare is the nation’s largest provider of pharmaceutical care for the elderly and other residents of long-term care facilities. In Omnicare’s registration statement, it said that “we believe” that its financial relationships with pharmaceutical manufacturers were legal. The investors here claim that some of those deals constituted unlawful kickbacks. The question is whether that allegation is enough to trigger Section 11.
According to Omnicare, for the investors to have a claim under Section 11, they have to allege that Omnicare didn’t believe the statement when it was made. Otherwise, companies could be held liable for statements of opinion that turn out later not to be true. Two circuit courts have taken that view.
But in this case, the Sixth Circuit took a different approach, one that makes it easier for investors to file a Section 11 claim. That court reasoned that Section 11 is a “strict liability” statute where the state of mind of company officials isn’t relevant, so it’s sufficient to allege that the opinion was false, regardless of whether the company knew at the time it was false. That’s the ruling the investors in this case are asking the Supreme Court to uphold.
In an amicus brief, the Obama Administration takes a middle ground, in which the company isn’t held liable only because it expressed an opinion that turned out not to be true. The Administration argues that a statement of opinion is actionable under Section 11 if: (1) the company didn’t believe it at the time (which both parties in this case agree on), or (2) there was no reasonable basis for the opinion at the time, even if it was sincerely held (which Omnicare disagrees with).
Any ruling by the Roberts Court should keep in mind that Congress enacted Section 11 to encourage maximum disclosure by companies making a public offering. After all, people associated with the company know far more about the business than potential investors could ever know, and Section 11 was intended to dissuade corporations from tricking investors.
Just as the Lochner case defined the Supreme Court a century ago as it turned conservative economic policies into constitutional dogma, America finds itself living through the Citizens United era, where the Court again routinely rules in favor of corporate and other powerful interests. By the end of June, we will know if the current term will have been as damaging to Americans’ fundamental rights as recent terms have been.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case that the Court’s conservative majority had “ventured into a minefield” with its decision. Many of those mines have already been placed by right-wing leaders who claim a religious grounding not only for anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-contraception positions, but also for opposition to collective bargaining, minimum wage laws, progressive taxation and government involvement in the alleviation of poverty.
In Hobby Lobby, the Court found for the first time that for-profit corporations have religious rights just like real people and can therefore make claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that they should be exempt from laws that burden their corporate “exercise” of religion. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was deeply skeptical of Justice Samuel Alito’s assertion that the decision was limited only to the contraception mandate and only for closely held corporations.
“Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay for substantially similar work?” she asked. How would the Court justify applying its logic only to religious views about contraception? “Indeed, approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be ‘perceived as favoring one religion over another,’ the very ‘risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.’”
Ginsburg’s questions are not merely rhetorical. Conservative Catholic and evangelical leaders who have signed the Manhattan Declaration, including some U.S. bishops, declare themselves willing to engage in civil disobedience – maybe even martyrdom – in order to avoid any participation in abortion or any “anti-life act.” Nor, they declare, “will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”
Alito’s majority opinion says Hobby Lobby does not extend the right to religion-based discrimination on account of a person’s race, but is conspicuously silent on other kinds of discrimination. That silence raises concerns that business owners could use the Hobby Lobby decision to opt out of a future federal LGBT civil rights law, or the Obama administration’s executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors.
Indeed, especially in light of Alito’s mention in Hobby Lobby that RFRA applies to the District of Columbia as a federal enclave, such a claim could be brought today to seek an exemption from D.C.’s Human Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. What happens if and when a local bishop instructs Catholic business owners that it would be sinful to treat legally married gay employees the same as other married couples, or an evangelical businessman declares he will not “bend” to DC’s Human Rights Act?
Business owners now have a new basis for trying to evade anti-discrimination laws and their responsibilities to their employees. Religious liberty is already the rallying cry for conservatives looking for a legal way to discriminate against LGBT Americans; other business owners have tried to use religion to justify opposition to minimum-wage laws and Social Security taxes. Faith groups are already trying to capitalize on the Hobby Lobby decision out of court; on Wednesday, a group of religious leaders asked the Obama administration for an exemption from a forthcoming federal order barring federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
To be clear, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was used as the basis for the Hobby Lobby decision applies only to federal and District of Columbia laws and regulations, including presidential executive orders, not to state laws.
The stories of business owners being told they cannot exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws have mostly involved questions about state-level civil rights and religious freedom statutes. Earlier this year the US Supreme Court declined to review a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a wedding photography business had violated anti-discrimination law when it refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.
Although Hobby Lobby does not apply directly to state laws, it could influence state courts weighing religious claims by business owners in states with their own versions of RFRA.
The clash between religious conservatives and advocates for LGBT equality has been well publicized. But the minefield Ginsburg refers to extends well beyond traditional “social issues.” Religious Right leaders have been working hard to convince conservative evangelicals that the Tea Party’s anti-government, anti-union, anti-welfare agenda is grounded in the Bible – an effort that started well before the Tea Party arrived on the scene.
David Barton is an influential Republican activist and “historian” who helped write the GOP’s national platform in 2012. Barton’s “Christian nation” approach to history has been denounced by historians and scholars, including some who are themselves evangelical Christians, but it is embraced by conservative politicians who extol a divinely inspired American exceptionalism. Barton teaches that Jesus and the Bible are opposed to progressive taxation, minimum wage laws, collective bargaining, and “socialist union kind of stuff.”
In addition, “mainstream” Religious Right leaders and conservative politicians are increasingly allied with a group of Pentecostal leaders who promote a “dominionist” theology that says God requires the right kind of Christians to take dominion over every aspect of society, including the business world. Many of them were sponsors of, and participants in, the prayer rally that Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to launch his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign.
Thanks to previous Supreme Court decisions, alluded to and affirmed by Alito’s majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, the Court has for now seemingly closed the door to companies making a religious challenge to paying Social Security and federal income taxes based on their objection to a particular government program funded with those taxes. But the same might not be true for more targeted taxes and fees, or for laws regulating company behavior or the relationships between companies and their employees.
Opposition to unions has deep roots in Christian Reconstructionism, which has influenced the Religious Right’s ideology and political agenda. An early Christian Coalition Leadership manual, co-authored by Republican operative Ralph Reed in 1990, is a stunning example. A section titled “God’s Delegated Authority in the World” argues that “God established His pattern for work as well as in the family and in the church.” It cites four Bible passages instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters, including this one:
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.
The conclusion to be drawn from these slaves-obey-your-masters passages?
Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man.
More recently, Religious Right leaders have cheered on corporate-funded attacks on unions in Wisconsin and Michigan. Does the Hobby Lobby ruling open another front in the right-wing war on workers? It is not uncommon for companies to refuse to cooperate with union organizers or negotiate with a properly organized union. Imagine that a business owner objects to a National Labor Relations Board finding that they have violated the National Labor Relations Act by arguing in federal court that their company’s religious beliefs prohibit them from dealing with unions?
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Since long before the Hobby Lobby case created an open invitation to business owners to raise religious objections to bargaining with unions, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has encouraged workers to raise religious objections to requirements that they join or financially support a union. Here’s an excerpt from their pamphlet, “Union Dues and Religious Do Nots.”
To determine whether your beliefs are religious instead of political or philosophical, ask yourself whether your beliefs are based upon your obligations to God. Do you simply dislike unions or hate this particular union’s politics? Or, does your desire to stand apart from the union arise from your relationship to God? If your beliefs arise from your decision to obey God, they are religious.
It is possible that conservative courts may not give the same weight to religious claims about anti-gay discrimination or the Bible’s opposition to unions or minimum wage laws as they did to Hobby Lobby’s anti-contraception claims. Those claims were based on the owners’ belief – one that runs counter to medical scientific consensus – that some of the most effective forms of birth control work by causing abortions, and are therefore the moral equivalent of murder.
But as Justice Ginsburg pointed out, it is not clear how courts will differentiate between different types of claims. And it will be easier for claims to meet the new, lower threshold created by the Court in effectively altering the “substantial burden” test.
As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, rather than having to show that a person’s, or corporation’s, practice of religion has been burdened, they simply need to show that a law is “incompatible with” the person’s religious beliefs. Additionally, it seems that a wide array of regulations, conceivably including minimum wage laws, could be threatened by Alito’s reliance on the idea that having the government pay for the cost of implementing a regulation is less restrictive than having the company bear the cost of a regulation it objects to.
It is also not clear that the decision will remain “limited” to the 90 percent of American companies that qualify as closely held, which employ more than half of the nation’s workforce. The Court explicitly acknowledged the possibility that publicly traded corporations could raise such claims, but argued that it would be “unlikely.” But in this new world in which corporate religious claims can be made against government regulation, what is to prevent the CEO or board of a publicly traded organization from finding religion with regard to, say, greenhouse gas emissions?
The Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, promoted by the anti-environmentalist Cornwall Alliance, declares as a matter of faith that earth’s ecosystem is not fragile and that efforts to reduce global warming, like regulating the emission of carbon dioxide, are not only “fruitless” and “harmful” but would discourage economic growth and therefore violate Biblical requirements to protect the poor from harm.
Justice Alito’s opinion rejects Justice Ginsburg’s characterization of the ruling’s “startling breadth.” But it is undeniable that the Court majority has opened the door to owners of for-profit corporations making an array of claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Justice Ginsburg writes in her dissent, “Little doubt that RFRA claims will proliferate, for the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood—combined with its other errors in construing RFRA—invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.” For today’s right-wing leaders, who claim religious grounding for just about every aspect of their political ideology, there aren’t many forms of regulation that would be off-limits.
"The Federalists have retired into the Judiciary as a stronghold … and from that battery all the works of republicanism are to be beaten down and erased."
—Thomas Jefferson, 1803
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
In the dismal 2013-14 Supreme Court Term in which the conservative majority wiped out aggregate campaign contribution limits (McCutcheon v. FEC), undercut the power of unions (Harris v. Quinn), and approved lopsided sectarian religious invocations in public meetings (Town of Greece v. Galloway), one big consolation was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s devastating indictment of the majority in her seething dissenting opinion from perhaps the worst decision of the Term, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
In Hobby Lobby, of course, the runaway conservative faction, for the first time in American history, determined that for-profit business corporations have religious rights and then used this epiphany to grant corporate owners the power to deny contraceptive coverage to female employees under the Affordable Care Act, the major Obama-era accomplishment which the Right reviles and never tires of attacking.
Justice Ginsburg, fighting young at age 81, was having none of it and methodically destroyed the thin arguments of Justice Alito in a 35-page opinion that should be required reading for anyone who still cares about the rule of law in America. The highlights of her comprehensive takedown of the majority show a Supreme Court Justice who richly deserves her title by virtue of her devotion to the rule of law and the rendering of justice and fairness to the people.
But Ginsburg’s masterful dissent in Hobby Lobby is not a lone shot in the dark; she is likely to complete her tenure on the Court being known as the Great Dissenter from the jurisprudence of the ruling conservative faction. Although Ginsburg obviously prefers to speak for freedom and equal rights when in the majority—see, for example, her magisterial opinion in United States v. Virginia (1996), striking down the exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute—she does not shy away as a dissenter from blowing the whistle on the logical fallacies, doctrinal inconsistencies and rank hypocrisies that inform the opinions of her colleagues when they are transforming the powers of corporate America or trashing the rights of working people and minority groups.
Moreover, from last term, this report examines several forceful opinions Ginsburg lodged in dissent against three appalling anti-civil rights decisions: Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which ravaged the Voting Rights Act; and Vance v. Ball State University (2013), and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar (2013), both of which undermined Title VII civil rights protections for people in the workplace. Assailing her conservative colleagues’ indifference to the situation of working people, castigating them from the bench for their tortured reasoning, and inviting Congress to reverse the damage they inflicted, Ginsburg showed that she remains at the top of her game.
While the Roberts Court majority continues its rampage against the constitutional, reproductive, and civil rights of the American people, Ginsburg not only calls out the real-world implications of this reactionary judicial activism but carefully spells out a path for corrective legislative action and for the elaboration of a principled jurisprudence in the future. Her progressive constitutional philosophy always places the equal rights and liberties of the people at the heart of the Court’s work and demonstrates a dynamic respect for Congress’ exercise of its enumerated powers to promote strong democracy, robust civil rights, and an inclusive economy.
HOBBY LOBBY STORES INC.
"In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."
In this well-chosen sentence that opens her dissenting opinion in Hobby Lobby, Justice Ginsburg explains how the majority decision, which authorizes business corporations to deny contraceptive care to millions of women employees, also generally rewrites American law to furnish corporations an all-purpose excuse for not complying with public laws.
Of course, the immediate victims of this breathtaking new orthodoxy are women, and Ginsburg, perhaps the greatest women’s rights lawyer of the 20th century, emphasizes the gender-based injury of the new doctrine.
“The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation,” she writes, quoting Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, “has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” Congress acted on this basic understanding when it provided for coverage of women’s preventive care in the Affordable Care Act and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) followed through by issuing regulations requiring group health plans to cover all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As Senator Durbin put it, “This bill will expand health insurance coverage to the vast majority of [the 17 million women of reproductive age in the United States who are uninsured] . . . .This expanded access will reduce unintended pregnancies.”
Yet, the owners of Hobby Lobby claimed that it would violate the corporation’s personal religious rights (I know, this makes no sense) to allow 13,000 employees under the company’s group insurance plan to access certain contraceptives, including IUDs, that the corporation’s five owners consider to be sinful. The exemption that the owners were granted, Ginsburg writes, will “deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that the ACA would otherwise secure.”
Ginsburg demonstrates how the majority’s theological joyride depends on an indefensible reading of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). That Act was meant to “restore the compelling interest test for deciding free exercise claims” in the wake of Employment Division, Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. V. Smith (1990), but not in any way to begin treating for-profit business corporations like the flesh-and-blood people of the United States when it comes to religious rights.
Ginsburg shows that there is zero support in RFRA’s legislative history for the idea that it endowed business companies with the personal rights of religious worship and free exercise. Furthermore, until this brazen litigation was brought, “no decision of the Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA.”
Moreover, Ginsburg observes, the “absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities.” Then she grabs the bull by the horns, revealing to America that the Hobby Lobby opinion is just a farcical copy of the tragic error committed in Citizens United (2010), the decision that pretended that corporations have the political free speech rights of citizens in order to endow CEOs with the power to spend treasury money in elections.
She quotes Chief Justice John Marshall’s famous statement from the Dartmouth College case in 1819 defining a corporation as “an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law,” and Justice Stevens’ stinging and obvious words from his dissenting thoughts in Citizens United: corporations “have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.”
Ginsburg then brushes away Justice Alito’s attempt to confuse the issue by citing cases where religious non-profit corporations—that is, churches!—have been granted religious free exercise protection. Of course this is the case, she points out, because these are religious entities enacting the religious practices and values of the people who belong to them. The Court’s “’special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations . . . is just that,” she says. “No such solicitude is traditional for commercial organizations. Indeed, until today, religious exemptions had never been extended to any entity operating in the commercial, profit-making world.” (internal citations omitted)
The reason for this is clear. “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith,” Ginsburg writes. “Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community. Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations.” Ginsburg thus raises the obvious question: do business corporations now have a RFRA right to discriminate in hiring and firing based on religion? It follows logically from the majority’s awful opinion.
Nor does Ginsburg try to hang on to the thin reed offered by the majority at one point to suggest that its reasoning might extend only to “closely held” corporations (which are actually the vast majority of corporations anyway) as opposed to publicly traded ones. “Although the Court attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations, its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private,” she writes.
After obliterating the central fallacy of the Court’s reasoning, Ginsburg proceeds to show how, even if the corporations in the case were “persons” within the meaning of RFRA, they did not have their religious rights violated by the Obamacare contraceptive insurance provisions.
To begin with, those provisions do not “substantially burden” the corporation or corporate owners in the exercise of their religion, which is the rigorous standard Congress established in RFRA. Conceding the sincerity of the Hobby Lobby owners’ objections to certain kinds of contraceptives, Ginsburg shows that nothing in the ACA makes them use such contraception, change their beliefs about these methods, or alter their religious practices in any way. The owners are in the same position as the Native American father in Bowen v. Roy (1986), who lost his case challenging the Government’s use of his child’s Social Security number as a violation of his sincere religious belief that his child’s sacred spirit is profaned by its reduction to a number and by its use in this fashion. There, Ginsburg points out, the sincere religious adherent lost because the Government’s administrative mandate and program “placed no restriction on what the father may believe or what he may do.” (emphasis added, internal citations omitted) Similarly, Hobby Lobby’s owners can believe and do whatever they want, except they may not have their company opt out of a federal law that does not impair their own religious practice. Hobby Lobby employees who share the religious views of the owners are under no obligation to use the sinful contraceptive devices, and their use by other employees does not affect the religious worship or practice of the owners, managers, or fellow employees.
Even if you pretend that there is a substantial burden on the company, Ginsburg writes, “the Government has shown that the contraceptive coverage . . . furthers compelling interests in public health and women’s well being,” a point so concrete, specific and demonstrable that the majority does not even bother to contest it.
So, finally, Ginsburg refutes the majority’s claim that the contraceptive coverage requirement fails to satisfy RFRA’s “least restrictive means test”—in other words, the claim that the Government could have promoted contraceptive health without this mandate. But, here, Ginsburg is devastating, showing that “there is no less restrictive, equally effective means that would both (1) satisfy the challengers’ religious objections to providing insurance coverage for certain contraceptives . . .and (2) carry out the objective of the ACA’s contraceptive coverage requirement, to ensure that women receive, at no cost to them, the preventive care needed to safeguard their health and well being.” Ginsburg dismantles the majority’s reliance on the idea that the government itself should pay for any religiously offensive insurance as a less restrictive means. That solution would force creation of another bureaucracy and a series of “logistical and administrative obstacles” put up in the path of women seeking comprehensive health care.
“And where is the stopping point to the ‘let the government pay’ alternative?” Ginsburg reasonably wonders. “Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay for substantially similar work? Does it rank as a less restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection?” (case citations omitted)
Ginsburg closes her dissent with a discussion of United States v. Lee (1982), a case in which an Amish employer unsuccessfully challenged having to participate in the Social Security system by withholding taxes for his employees. Although the majority dismissed the relevance of this “tax case,” the Lee Court “made two key points” that Ginsburg shows neatly dispense with all the bogus claims in Hobby Lobby.
First: “When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” Second: “allowing a religion-based exemption to a commercial employer would ‘operate to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.’”
Mobilizing cases from the past, Ginsburg suggests that the Court’s decision opens the door to the discredited but once-popular claims by restaurant chain owners that they should not be forced to serve black patrons if they have a religious objection to race-mixing or by for-profit health clubs that want to discriminate against women working without their husbands’ or fathers’ consent, not to mention all the suddenly viable claims against the ACA by “employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others).”
The Supreme Court thus delivers a mess to America in Hobby Lobby by carrying over the political fallacy in Citizens United to the religious field. Justice Ginsburg renders the mess in its full glory.
SHELBY COUNTY, ALABAMA, Petitioner
Eric H. HOLDER, Jr., Attorney General, et al.
"In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."
The most stinging defeat inflicted on voting rights in at least a decade came last term with the majority’s invalidation in 2013 of the preclearance coverage formula in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This decision effectively wiped out the major provision of the most important voting rights law in American history. The ruling revealed the Court’s hostility to the institutional infrastructure of African-American political empowerment and the role that Congress has played in securing the right to vote against conservative white resistance.
Joined in dissent by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Justice Ginsburg was having none of it. She systematically refuted the majority’s distorted view of history, its remarkably cavalier assault on the powers of Congress, and its thoroughgoing illogic. She was unsparing of the radicalism of the majority’s error: “It cannot tenably be maintained that the Voting Rights Act, an Act of Congress adopted to shield the right to vote from racial discrimination, is inconsistent with the letter or spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment, or any provision of the Constitution read in light of the Civil War Amendments. Nowhere in today’s opinion ... is there clear recognition of the transformative effect the Fifteenth Amendment aimed to achieve.”
Ginsburg painstakingly reconstructed the history of violent and nonviolent suppression of black voting rights after the Civil War and stated, “Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra. Whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place.” The preclearance mechanism in the Voting Rights Act was the principal instrument for dismantling the ever-changing tactics of racial vote dilution, trickery, and intimidation.
But Justice Ginsburg showed that the attacks on voting rights never ceased and that the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 was based on congressional review of voluminous reports of ongoing assaults on voting rights. Ginsburg wrote:
“Surveying the type of changes stopped by the preclearance procedure conveys a sense of the extent to which § 5 continues to protect minority voting rights. Set out below are characteristic examples of changes blocked in the years leading up to the 2006 reauthorization:
- In 1995, Mississippi sought to reenact a dual voter registration system, ‘which was initially enacted in 1892 to disenfranchise Black voters,’ and for that reason, was struck down by a federal court in 1987.
- Following the 2000 census, the City of Albany, Georgia, proposed a redistricting plan that DOJ found to be ‘designed with the purpose to limit and retrogress the increased black voting strength … in the city as a whole.’
- In 2001, the mayor and all-white five-member Board of Aldermen of Kilmichael, Mississippi, abruptly canceled the town's election after ‘an unprecedented number’ of African-American candidates announced they were running for office. DOJ required an election, and the town elected its first black mayor and three black aldermen.
- In 2006, this Court found that Texas’ attempt to redraw a congressional district to reduce the strength of Latino voters bore ‘the mark of intentional discrimination that could give rise to an equal protection violation,’ and ordered the district redrawn in compliance with the VRA. In response, Texas sought to undermine this Court's order by curtailing early voting in the district, but was blocked by an action to enforce the § 5 preclearance requirement.
- In 2003, after African-Americans won a majority of the seats on the school board for the first time in history, Charleston County, South Carolina, proposed an at-large voting mechanism for the board. The proposal, made without consulting any of the African-American members of the school board, was found to be an ‘exact replica’ of an earlier voting scheme that, a federal court had determined, violated the VRA. DOJ invoked § 5 to block the proposal.
- In 1993, the City of Millen, Georgia, proposed to delay the election in a majority-black district by two years, leaving that district without representation on the city council while the neighboring majority-white district would have three representatives. DOJ blocked the proposal. The county then sought to move a polling place from a predominantly black neighborhood in the city to an inaccessible location in a predominantly white neighborhood outside city limits.
- In 2004, Waller County, Texas, threatened to prosecute two black students after they announced their intention to run for office. The county then attempted to reduce the availability of early voting in that election at polling places near a historically black university.
- In 1990, Dallas County, Alabama, whose county seat is the City of Selma, sought to purge its voter rolls of many black voters. DOJ rejected the purge as discriminatory, noting that it would have disqualified many citizens from voting ‘simply because they failed to pick up or return a voter update form, when there was no valid requirement that they do so.’
“These examples, and scores more like them, fill the pages of the legislative record. The evidence was indeed sufficient to support Congress’ conclusion that ‘racial discrimination in voting in covered jurisdictions [remained] serious and pervasive.’ 679 F.3d, at 865.5
“Congress further received evidence indicating that formal requests of the kind set out above represented only the tip of the iceberg. There was what one commentator described as an ‘avalanche of case studies of voting rights violations in the covered jurisdictions,’ ranging from ‘outright intimidation and violence against minority voters’ to ‘more subtle forms of voting rights deprivations.’ This evidence gave Congress ever more reason to conclude that the time had not yet come for relaxed vigilance against the scourge of race discrimination in voting.”
Ginsburg also displayed a steely resolve to put the facts of real-world race discrimination in the face of a Court that is determined to covers its eyes. Consider this striking report from Justice Ginsburg, drawn from a federal district court case:
“A recent FBI investigation provides a further window into the persistence of racial discrimination in state politics. See United States v. McGregor, 824 F.Supp.2d 1339, 1344–1348 (M.D.Ala.2011). Recording devices worn by state legislators cooperating with the FBI’s investigation captured conversations between members of the state legislature and their political allies. The recorded conversations are shocking. Members of the state Senate derisively refer to African-Americans as “Aborigines” and talk openly of their aim to quash a particular gambling-related referendum because the referendum, if placed on the ballot, might increase African-American voter turnout. See id., at 1345 (legislators and their allies expressed concern that if the referendum were placed on the ballot, ‘[e]very black, every illiterate’ would be ‘bused [to the polls] on HUD financed buses’). These conversations occurred not in the 1870's, or even in the 1960's, they took place in 2010. The District Judge presiding over the criminal trial at which the recorded conversations were introduced commented that the ‘recordings represent compelling evidence that political exclusion through racism remains a real and enduring problem’ in Alabama. Racist sentiments, the judge observed, ‘remain regrettably entrenched in the high echelons of state government.’”
Ginsburg’s final judgments on the performance of the Court were withering. She did not flinch from linking the regressive nature of the Court’s jurisprudence to the return of disenfranchisement and voter suppression, and she revealed her understanding of the tragic side of American history. She wrote:
“The Court criticizes Congress for failing to recognize that ‘history did not end in 1965.’ But the Court ignores that ‘what’s past is prologue.’ W. Shakespeare, The Tempest, act 2, sc. 1. And ‘[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ 1 G. Santayana, The Life of Reason 284 (1905).”
And she openly declared that members of Congress had acted with greater professionalism in reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act than her Supreme Court colleagues in the majority did in dismantling it:
“Congress approached the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA with great care and seriousness. The same cannot be said of the Court's opinion today.”
Because Justice Ginsburg cut her teeth as a lawyer on fighting for equal rights and fairness in the workplace, she knows what having strong federal labor laws means for working-class Americans who report to a boss every day.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the essential anti-discrimination law protecting women and racial minority groups at work and establishing a framework for workplace fairness. But Title VII has been under ceaseless attack by right-wing forces ever since it was passed. Today, the five conservatives on the Roberts Court are looking for every opportunity to undermine its essential terms, and the 2012-13 term was especially brutal on the statute. In the following two key cases where the conservatives cut back on the protections available to workers under Title VII, Justice Ginsburg dissented sharply, insisting that congressional intent was being thwarted and the interests of workers thrown under the bus. These dissenting opinions register an echo of what was perhaps Justice Ginsburg’s greatest dissent so far, the blisteringly effective opinion she filed in Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. (2007).
Maetta VANCE, Petitioner
BALL STATE UNIVERSITY
“The ball is once again in Congress’ court to correct the error into which this Court has fallen, and to restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the Court weakens today.”
Under Title VII, when an employee is subject to workplace harassment at the hands of their supervisor, the employer is liable. This ensures that victims of harassment have a remedy, and it also gives companies a financial incentive to remedy harassment after the fact and take action to discourage it before it occurs.
In Vance v. Ball State University, the Court conservatives dealt another blow to Title VII, ruling that the class of “supervisors” held accountable under the statute includes only those managers who have the power to fire employees or reduce their salaries—and not those managers who actually control employees’ day-to-day schedules, work assignments, and working environments. In one fell swoop, the conservatives thus lopped off a big chunk of anti-discrimination law, making the workplace a more hostile and dangerous place for Americans, especially women.
Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, completely demolished the shoddy reasoning of the majority. The decision, she wrote, “ignores the conditions under which members of the work force labor, and disserves the objective of Title VII to prevent discrimination from infecting the Nation's workplaces. ... Until today, our decisions have assumed that employees who direct subordinates’ daily work are supervisors.”
Using the vivid and appalling language that comes with the territory of sexual harassment, Ginsburg discussed case after case where harassers controlled women’s work schedules, workloads, and work lives, showing that the employers in these cases would now escape direct Title VII liability because the harassers did not have the power to hire and fire.
Ginsburg was blistering in her judgment of the damage wrought by five conservative male Justices. “As anyone with work experience would immediately grasp, [the harassers in these cases] wielded employer-conferred supervisory authority over their victims. Each man's discriminatory harassment derived force from, and was facilitated by, the control reins he held”; “Exhibiting remarkable resistance to the thrust of our prior decisions, workplace realities, and the EEOC's Guidance, the Court embraces a position that relieves scores of employers of responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ”; “Faced with a steeper substantive and procedural hill to climb, victims like Yasharay Mack, Donna Rhodes, Clara Whitten, and Monika Starke likely will find it impossible to obtain redress. We can expect that, as a consequence of restricting the supervisor category to those formally empowered to take tangible employment actions, victims of workplace harassment with meritorious Title VII claims will find suit a hazardous endeavor. Inevitably, the Court's definition of supervisor will hinder efforts to stamp out discrimination in the workplace ... the Court, insistent on constructing artificial categories where context should be key, proceeds on an immoderate and unrestrained course to corral Title VII.”
Ginsburg again demonstrated that her deeply felt professional passion is to serve the cause of constitutional and legal justice, affirmatively calling on congressional lawmakers to continue to “correct this Court's wayward interpretations of Title VII. ... The ball is once again in Congress’ court to correct the error into which this Court has fallen, and to restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the Court weakens today.”
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS SOUTHWESTERN MEDICAL CENTER, Petitioner
“What sense can one make of this other than ‘heads the employer wins, tails the employee loses?’"
In another decision whose illogic and injustice Justice Ginsburg protested in 2013, the five-justice conservative majority pulled a rabbit out of a hat and found that, under Title VII, workers alleging retaliatory discharge for complaining about job discrimination must show that the retaliatory motive was not just a “motivating factor” in their firing but the “but for” cause, a nearly impossibly stringent standard to meet. The case, which involves egregious ethnic and national origin discrimination against a doctor of Middle Eastern descent, established that plaintiffs facing retaliatory discrimination must essentially not show just that employers acted in order to punish them for exercising their civil rights but that this was essentially the only purpose they had.
This decision marked a dramatic departure from the text of Title VII and a coherent reading of its terms. The statute considers it discrimination whenever “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” is “a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” This language was adopted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which was designed to address a Supreme Court decision that sharply cut back on the scope of Title VII by forcing plaintiffs to prove that they would not have been fired or demoted without the presence of the discriminatory motivation. Congress wanted to be certain that, to be actionable under Title VII, discrimination would have to be only a “motivating factor” in the adverse employment action and not necessarily its “but-for cause.” Thus, prior to this ruling, it was considered enough under Title VII to show that discriminatory animus plays some role in a worker’s discharge or demotion, because it should be playing none at all. Critically, the rule Congress intended to restore in 1991 was not confined to substantive discrimination but presumably applied as well to retaliatory discrimination—that is, discrimination against workers who exercise their Title VII anti-discrimination rights. This is the way that the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) had always understood the law to operate.
But the Roberts Court majority, in another one of its dismal 5-4 specials, found that the more stringent standard openly repudiated by Congress still operates when it comes to retaliation claims. “In so holding,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in dissent, “the Court ascribes to Congress the unlikely purpose of separating retaliation claims from discrimination claims, thereby undermining the Legislature’s effort to fortify the protections of Title VII.” This holding, she observed, is “at odds with a solid line of decisions recognizing that retaliation is inextricably bound up with status-based discrimination.”
In her comprehensive and devastating dissent, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Ginsburg demonstrated that this ruling had no basis in statutory language, legislative history, EEOC practice, or relevant case precedent. Ginsburg tore apart the majority’s sloppy, cut-and-paste job of analysis: “It is strange logic indeed to conclude that when Congress homed in on retaliation and codified the proscription, as it did in Title VII, Congress meant protection against that unlawful employment practice to have less force than the protection available when the statute does not mention retaliation. It is hardly surprising, then, that our jurisprudence does not support the Court's conclusion.” She showed that the conservatives had turned Title VII on its head: “Jurors will puzzle over the rhyme or reason for the dual standards. Of graver concern, the Court has seized on a provision adopted by Congress as part of an endeavor to strengthen Title VII, and turned it into a measure reducing the force of the ban on retaliation.” Nor was she shy about telling us what was really going on with the Court’s decision: “In this endeavor, the Court is guided neither by precedent, nor by the aims of legislators who formulated and amended Title VII. Indeed, the Court appears driven by a zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims filed against employers.” Perhaps most blistering and memorable of all was this zinger on the Court’s doctrinal somersaults: “What sense can one make of this other than ‘heads the employer wins, tails the employee loses?’”
Recognizing again that the rights of workers is what matters the most, not just the terribly weak debating tactics of the majority, Ginsburg called for Congress to come to the rescue again of the nation’s major civil rights law in the workplace: “Today’s misguided judgment, along with the judgment in Vance v. Ball State Univ., should prompt yet another Civil Rights Restoration Act.”
Lilly M. LEDBETTER, Petitioner
The GOODYEAR TIRE & RUBBER CO., INC.
“This is not the first time the Court has ordered a cramped interpretation of Title VII, incompatible with the statute’s broad remedial purpose. … Once again, the ball is in Congress’ court. As in 1991, the Legislature may act to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII.”
If Ginsburg’s passionate call to action on Title VII helps inspire Congress to act to reverse its recent mistakes, it will be a replay of Justice Ginsburg’s experience dissenting in Lilly M. Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), when the whole country followed her ferociously principled dissent and Congress went to work right away to reverse the Court’s disastrous decision.
Writing for herself and Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer, Justice Ginsburg pointed out the absurdity of this interpretation, which rewards discriminators for their deception. She argued that each act of issuing a discriminatory paycheck clearly renews and continues the original discrimination. Ginsburg minced no words: “The Court asserts that treating pay discrimination as a discrete act, limited to each particular pay-setting decision, is necessary to ‘protec[t] employers from the burden of defending claims arising from employment decisions that are long past.’ But the discrimination of which Ledbetter complained is not long past. As she alleged, and as the jury found, Goodyear continued to treat Ledbetter differently because of sex each pay period, with mounting harm.” Ginsburg pointed out to the conservatives that it was Ledbetter who was the victim of discrimination in the case—not Goodyear: “Her initial readiness to give her employer the benefit of the doubt should not preclude her from later challenging the then current and continuing payment of a wage depressed on account of her sex.” Ginsburg’s forceful dissent laid the groundwork for a huge public education campaign across America in 2008 to reverse the Court’s pinched interpretation of Title VII. This campaign helped turn the tide of public opinion against both right-wing economics and right-wing judicial activism. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was signed on January 29, 2009, the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama. By all accounts, Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion was instrumental in making it happen.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 92 OF POTTAWATOMIE COUNTY
“Notwithstanding nightmarish images of out-of-control flatware, livestock run amok, and colliding tubas disturbing the peace and quiet of Tecumseh, the great majority of students the School District seeks to (drug) test in truth are engaged in activities that are not safety sensitive ...”
In the 21st century, governmental and corporate assaults on personal freedom and privacy are replete and constant. For many conservatives, Big Brother tactics are fine when the people whose rights are being trampled are students, prisoners, workers, criminal defendants, and others who lack the kind of social power the conservatives respect. But Justice Ginsburg stands up for civil liberties across the board, even for high school students, reminding everyone that freedom is at the heart of what it means to be an American under our Constitution and Bill of Rights. At a time when Justice Ginsburg’s age is being debated in public, it should not escape notice that she is a great champion on the Court of the rights of young Americans.
In the 2002 case of Board of Education School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Lindsay Earls, Justice Clarence Thomas delivered an opinion for the majority upholding the constitutionality of a high school imposing mandatory drug tests on all high school students in competitive extracurricular activities, including the Future Farmers of America, band, choir, the academic team, and cheerleading. The majority compared this policy to the facts of a 1995 case where the Court upheld random urinalysis drug tests for students involved in school sports, given the risk of immediate physical harm to athletes and those with whom they play, the lessened privacy expectations inherent in public school locker rooms and showers, and the school district’s demonstrated drug problem with students in school athletics. Justice Ginsburg had concurred in that case.
But in the 2002 case, joined by Justices Stevens, O’Connor, and Souter, Justice Ginsburg dissented, arguing that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment because it “is not reasonable, it is capricious, even perverse [because it] targets for testing a student population least likely to be at risk from illicit drugs and their damaging effects.”
Displaying her famous humor and dry wit, Ginsburg lampooned the majority’s effort to liken the situation of students in chorus, orchestra, and Future Farmers of America to varsity football and basketball players, who are engaged in a dangerous, high-risk sport and are used to situations of “communal undress.” Responding to the argument that members of the Future Farmers of America “handle a 1500-pound steer” and participants in Future Homemakers of America “work with cutlery,” Ginsburg wrote: “Notwithstanding nightmarish images of out-of-control flatware, livestock run amok, and colliding tubas disturbing the peace and quiet of Tecumseh, the great majority of students the School District seeks to test in truth are engaged in activities that are not safety sensitive to any unusual degree.”
She also gently but pointedly chided the majority for using reasoning that could apply to all school children, despite the Vernonia opinion’s having gone out of its way to explain why school sports programs could be distinguished from other elements of going to school: “Had the Vernonia Court agreed that public school attendance, in and of itself, permitted the State to test each student’s blood or urine for drugs, the opinion in Vernonia could have saved many words.”
Ever attentive to the real-world implications of the Court’s rulings, Ginsburg reproached her colleagues for upholding a policy that is not only repressive but severely counterproductive: “Even if students might be deterred from drug use in order to preserve their extracurricular eligibility, it is at least as likely that other students might forgo their extracurricular involvement in order to avoid detection of their drug use. Tecumseh’s policy thus falls short doubly if deterrence is its aim: It invades the privacy of students who need deterrence least, and risks steering students at greatest risk for substance abuse away from extracurricular involvement that potentially may palliate drug problems.”
In our day—as in Thomas Jefferson’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s—conservative forces in the country have turned the Supreme Court and the judiciary into their “stronghold,” and from that battery they work to nullify and neutralize progressive legislation and well-established constitutional rights. Given how much progress Americans have made over the last half-century on voting rights, workplace rights, equal pay and civil liberties, the Roberts Court is doing far more damage to democratic progress than any Court since the Lochner era, when judicial conservatives wiped out progressive workplace laws and economic regulation.
Justice Ginsburg has emerged as a crucial and powerfully eloquent voice for protecting the legislation produced by the civilizing movements of our time. She has also continued to spell out a constitutional vision that includes robust democracy, an inclusive economy, and ample civil liberty for all of us.
As an impassioned and thorough dissenter, Ginsburg continues a visionary tradition that goes back to Justice William Johnson, who was nominated to the Court by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 and launched the practice of filing dissenting opinions; Justice John Marshall Harlan, whose dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) insisted that Jim Crow segregation was unconstitutional because “in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens”; and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose prescient dissent from the fateful Lochner decision, which struck down wage and hour legislation (1905), argued that the case was “decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain.” Like her constitutional forerunners, Ginsburg painstakingly demonstrates how an errant majority has trampled constitutional justice and equality.
With her stirring rhetoric and sly humor, Justice Ginsburg provides anyone listening in Congress, as well as her colleagues and successors on the bench and, above all, the American people themselves, an alternative “vision of democracy and the Constitution,” which is the hallmark of a great dissenter, as Professor Mark Tushnet argued in his book on the subject, I dissent. This alternative constitutional vision is essential today because the conservatives routed in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 have “retired into the Judiciary as a stronghold,” where they try to beat down and erase all progressive legislative and judicial victories just as their forebears did. Ginsburg’s vision is the opposite of the constitutional philosophy held by the Roberts Court majority, which defends corporate and government power over individual rights and liberties and always manages to find a reason to discard federal and state laws that seek to promote democracy and the common good. Whenever Justice Ginsburg chooses to leave the Court, it will be a loss to her country. Win, lose, or draw, she never takes her eyes off the prize.
The following is a guest blog by Beth Huang, 2010 Fellow of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program.
Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in two critical cases with major implications for working women. The Supreme Court ruled once again that corporations are people, this time conferring religious rights that trump workers’ rights to access full healthcare. In a dissent to the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted “that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month's full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.” Justice Ginsberg’s dissent reveals the real impacts of denying coverage of contraception for low-wage working women -- something the slim five-justice, all-male majority fails to comprehend.
To compound the attack on working women, five male Justices severely undermined the ability of care workers – 95 percent of whom are women – to collectively bargain in the case Harris v. Quinn. This assault on working people stems from the Justices’ view that the care workers in the case are not “real” public employees and thus the union cannot charge the appropriate agency fee to all of them for its bargaining services. This ruling serves the interests of anti-worker extremists at the expense of these invaluable workers who care for our families and our children.
It’s clear: a majority of Justices are trampling over the rights of working women. In light of these attacks, it’s time to organize for gender equity and economic justice for working women.
Back in 2010 when I was a student, Young People For helped me develop organizing skills that have led me to effectively advocate for and with women and workers. Through my work in student labor organizing as an undergraduate and since graduation, I have seen that workers’ rights are women’s rights, from having access to comprehensive healthcare to having a voice on the job. To build an economy that works for today’s students and youth, we need to organize locally and train new leaders in the broad effort to advance our agenda for gender equity and economic justice.
At the Student Labor Action Project a joint project of Jobs with Justice and the United States Student Association, we’re doing just that by building student power to advance an agenda that protects the rights of current workers and promotes a more just economy for students to enter when they graduate. Our campaigns focus on demanding funding for public higher education, which we know is a major source of good jobs and upward mobility for women and people of color; pushing back on Wall Street profits that fuel the student debt crisis; and raising the working conditions for Walmart workers, 57 percent of whom are women.
The Supreme Court’s decisions last week underscored the urgency of organizing for these changes. Women’s access to equal rights, power in the workplace, and comprehensive healthcare depends on it.
Days after the Supreme Court handed down its damaging 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, SCOTUS issued an order that underscored the danger that Hobby Lobby poses for women’s health.
In Wheaton College v. Burwell, SCOTUS temporarily granted relief to Wheaton College, a religious institution that is “categorically” opposed to providing contraceptive services, from the contraception coverage compromise solution that the Court explicitly endorsed in Hobby Lobby. The order says that Wheaton may be exempt from submitting a form that would inform the government that they object to covering birth control. Wheaton College argued that submitting this form would make it “complicit in the provision of contraceptive coverage.” The temporary order indicates that the Court’s majority may accept this problematic argument.
In what Think Progress called a “blistering dissent” to the order, Justice Sonia Sotomayor — joined by the two other female Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — sharply criticized the order. Sotomayor wrote in the dissent:
“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.”
While this order is temporary until the case may be heard in front of the Court, the female Justices’ strong dissent demonstrates not only the division within the Court, but also the importance of having diversity on our courts. Women on the bench provide a critically important perspective on all cases, but especially those that deal with women’s lives. It is more important than ever, when women’s rights are under assault, that women are more fairly represented at all levels of government.
In its 5-4 ruling today in Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority played fast and loose with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the law that provided the basis for the claim that religious liberty rights conflicted with the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As Justice Ginsburg’s dissent pointed out, the clear language and history of RFRA stated that it was intended to “restore” the protection of religious liberty that the First Amendment provided before Justice Scalia’s infamous decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which said that there was no protection for religious people whose religious practices were substantially burden by general laws. As a participant in drafting and helping get support for RFRA in the 1990s, I can testify personally that this was true. The broad coalition of groups and legislators – from PFAW to the National Association of Evangelicals, from Orrin Hatch to Ted Kennedy – would never have agreed otherwise. But the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby nevertheless claims that RFRA was, in Justice Ginsburg’s words, “a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence.”
This twisting of RFRA was significant in two ways to the Hobby Lobby result. First, it allowed the majority to rule that for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby could claim rights under RFRA. As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, the Court had never so ruled before, since religious liberty protection properly belongs to individuals and religious institutions like churches. Second, it led to the majority’s ruling that there was a “substantial” burden” on religious exercise in the case, based on the claim that the religious beliefs of Hobby Lobby’s owners were offended by the ACA requirement. As Justice Ginsburg explained, pre-Smith law made clear that this kind of mere conflict with religious beliefs was not enough to prove a substantial burden. Instead, a requirement must actually restrict or burden “what [the person] may believe or what he may do.” Under this analysis, Ginsburg explained, any burden in this case was too attenuated to be substantial. After all, Hobby Lobby was not required to purchase or provide contraceptives, but simply to deposit money into undifferentiated funds that finance a wide variety of benefits; it was up to individual employees whether to utilize contraceptives.
These concerns are much more than historical or theoretical. First, the majority’s rationale could deprive millions of Americans of contraceptive or other coverage under ACA. Even if restricted to closely held corporations, more than 50% of all American workers work for corporations that could similarly claim under Hobby Lobby that their religious beliefs are sincerely offended by providing coverage for contraceptives or other services, and that would be enough to trigger RFRA. Second, if a corporation can prove it is substantially burdened under RFRA because its owners or board have a sincere religious objection to a government requirement, they can make exactly those claims to try to exempt themselves from anti-discrimination and other workers’ rights laws. The Hobby Lobby majority tried to downplay this concern by Justice Ginsburg, but specifically mentioned only that laws banning racial discrimination should be safe from this claim. For example, what about laws banning discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation? The 5-4 majority opinion is almost an invitation to businesses to further distort RFRA by making such claims.
Crowds of activists and advocacy groups gathered outside while the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. case.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not shy away from asking difficult questions that demonstrate the broad implications this case could have. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan voiced concerns regarding the implications of a ruling for the first time in our nation’s history that for-profit corporations have religious rights. Both justices questioned whether this decision would allow companies to deny access to coverage of not only contraceptive methods, but also of other lifesaving procedures employers might object to on religious grounds—like blood transfusions or vaccines.
The Huffington Post quotes Justice Kagan as saying, “There are quite a number of medical treatments that could be religiously objected to… Everything would be piecemeal, nothing would be uniform.”
Pushing the issue further, Justice Sotomayor asked, “How are courts supposed to know whether a corporation holds a particular religious belief?”
Similarly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
was a law that was passed overwhelmingly [by] both houses of Congress. People from all sides of the political spectrum voted for it. It seems strange that there would have been that tremendous uniformity if it means [corporations are covered].
[T]here was an effort to adopt a … specific conscience amendment in 2012, and the Senate rejected that… That amendment would have enabled secular employers and insurance providers to deny coverage on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions. It was specifically geared to secular employers and insurance providers. And that…was rejected.
Justice Kagan noted that RFRA was considered non-controversial when it passed, an unlikely reaction if it had been understood to open the door to employers citing religious objections to complying with laws relating to sex discrimination, minimum wage, family leave, or child labor.
Justice Kagan also noted that women are “quite tangibly harmed” when employers don’t provide contraceptive coverage. This decision, however, could have far-reaching implications beyond women’s reproductive rights since this case deals with some of the same core issues seen in “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s, as we pointed out yesterday morning.
With little over a month before the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a money in politics case that some are calling the next Citizens United, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke out this week on the damage that Citizens United v. FEC continues to cause to our democracy.
Discussing the infamous 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for unlimited corporate spending to influence our elections, Ginsburg told Greg Stohr of Bloomberg News:
“You take the limits off and say, ‘You can spend as much as you want,’ and people will spend and spend,” she said. “People are appalled abroad. It’s a question I get asked all the time: Why should elections be determined by how much a candidate can spend and why should candidates spend most of their time these days raising the funds so that they will prevail in the next election?”
It’s a great question, and one with a clear answer – they shouldn’t.
Justice Ginsburg is not alone in her concerns about the damage done to our democratic system. A 2012 Brennan Center national poll found that nearly seven in ten respondents agree that “new rules that let corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.”
And this is not the first time Justice Ginsburg has publicly commented on the Citizens United decision. Early last year, Justices Ginsburg and Breyer released a statement in conjunction with a Court order in a campaign finance case out of Montana stating that:
Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” A petition for certiorari will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.
It is also not the first time she has commented on the Roberts Court more generally. In an interview with the New York Times this weekend, Ginsburg called the current court “one of the most activist courts in history.”
In October, the high court will hear arguments in a case considering similar issues, McCutcheon v. FEC, for which People For the American Way Foundation submitted an amicus brief. In this case, the Supreme Court could take the damage of Citizens United one step further by eliminating the caps on how much money an individual can contribute – in total – in each two-year campaign cycle. It other words, the court would be striking down another protection against wealthy special interests overpowering our political system, allowing even more big money to flow into our elections.
Just what our democracy needs. PFAW Foundation Executive Vice President Marge Baker noted last month:
Protecting the legitimacy of our political system, and restoring the faith of the American people in that system, is vital to a working democracy.
And as Justice Ginsburg highlighted this week, elections shouldn’t be determined by who has the biggest wallet.
With Election Day 2012 rapidly approaching, we are at a critical turning point for the Supreme Court. The next president will most likely pick at least one and possibly two or three Supreme Court Justices, deciding the Court’s direction for decades to come. With so many cases affecting nearly every aspect of our lives being decided by slim majorities – often just one vote – the stakes for Supreme Court nominations couldn’t be higher.
This report outlines exactly what is at stake for issues ranging from civil rights, women’s rights, and workplace fairness to laws about money in politics and basic voting rights. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said that he wants to nominate more Supreme Court Justices like Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia – the Justices who brought us Citizens United, who slammed the courthouse door shut when Lilly Ledbetter and women Wal-Mart employees dared to fight pay discrimination, and who consistently twist the law beyond recognition to rule for corporate interests over the rights of individual Americans.
Mitt Romney has openly embraced judicial extremism by picking failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork as his judicial advisor. A bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate rejected Robert Bork when Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court. Why? Bork thought the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional. He promoted censorship. He rejected rights for women, minorities, and gays and lesbians. He was just too extreme for the Supreme Court. And now Mitt Romney wants Robert Bork to help him pick the next Justices of the Supreme Court.
America can’t afford this kind of judicial extremism. For so many issues that shape our day-to-day lives, the consequences of this election will be vast.
A Romney presidency would further undermine the already much-eroded ability of consumers to vindicate their rights in court, especially when it comes to resisting unfair and one-sided arbitration clauses in purchase, service or employment contracts.
In the last several years, the ruling bloc on the Roberts Court has dramatically curtailed consumers’ rights to file class action suits and to bring contract unconscionability claims to court. An even more conservative Court could also cancel the ability of consumers to sue companies in areas where Federal regulation exists but has not been read to nullify individual rights of action.
The Court has made it decidedly much harder for consumers to file class action lawsuits—and this is a serious problem. When a corporate scheme cheats millions of customers of individually small amounts, the result can be a windfall for the company; it simply isn’t worth it for an individual to sue to collect $20 or $30. Class action litigation allows the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, while ensuring the company does not profit from its scheme.
In AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, a 2011 case where such a scheme was alleged, the cell phone contract between respondents and AT&T provided for arbitration of all disputes, but did not permit class-wide arbitration. The Ninth Circuit held this provision was unconscionable under California law and that the Federal Arbitration Act did not preempt its ruling.
The Supreme Court overturned this decision, holding that the Federal Arbitration Act preempted California law against the enforceability of contracts found to be unconscionable. Justice Scalia wrote the opinion in this egregious 5-4 decision, stating that "[r]equiring the availability of class-wide arbitration interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration and thus creates a scheme inconsistent with the FAA.” The majority created out of thin air a statutory preference for the faster and more informal method of bilateral arbitration that is so easily susceptible to exploitation by big businesses.
In his vigorous dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer pointed out that this decision makes it much harder for consumers to combat market injustices. The ruling was seen as a major victory for corporations that not only disadvantages consumers but weakens legal protections against employment discrimination, since large employers often make new hires sign the same kinds of arbitration agreements. As Vanderbilt law professor Brian Fitzpatrick said of the decision, "It gives companies a green light to exempt themselves from all class actions from their customers or from their employees. Companies can basically escape from the civil justice system. And why wouldn't a company take advantage of that?"
Concepcion came just a year after another arbitration agreement defeat for consumers. In Rent-a-Center v. Jackson, an employee disputed an agreement providing that the arbitrator, and not a court, had exclusive authority to resolve any dispute relating to the enforceability of the arbitration agreement. The employee argued that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable under state law. The Court held that if a company’s arbitration agreement includes a clause delegating fairness challenges to the arbitrator, a court must automatically enforce that agreement and send the matter to arbitration.
This 5-4 decision, also authored by Justice Scalia, handed a major victory to corporations seeking to evade legitimate courts through imposition of arbitration clauses. According to Public Citizen, the holding in Rent-a-Center allows companies to “impose one-sided terms or select clearly biased arbitrators with close ties to the company, secure in the knowledge that any challenge to the fairness of arbitration will be decided by the arbitrator whose very authority comes from the challenged arbitration agreement.” As a New York Times editorial put it, “[i]f a contract is invalid, he said, how can the arbitration clause it contains still be valid?”
As bad as these rulings have been, things can clearly get worse on the Roberts Court. Consumer protection rulings have not all been on the side of the corporations as there have been a handful of 5-4 decisions of a pro-consumer leaning on the Roberts Court. In Cuomo v. Clearing House, the Court held that the “visitorial powers” accorded to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency do not preempt state laws regulating banks. In this 5-4 decision in which Justice Scalia joined the liberal justices and wrote the opinion, Scalia observed that states "have always enforced their general laws against national banks -- and have enforced their banking-related laws against national banks for at least 85 years." If not for this surprising opinion by Justice Scalia, the states would simply not be able to uphold their own consumer protections against banks. A Romney nominee replacing one of the moderate-to-liberal justices would have produced a devastating outcome in this case.
The Court has also produced mixed results concerning whether pharmaceutical companies must warn consumers about the potential danger their drugs pose. In Wyeth v. Levine, the Supreme Court held in a 6-3 decision that FDA regulations governing the labeling of prescription drugs do not preempt state-law failure-to-warn claims against name brand drug manufacturers. However, the Court held in PLIVA v. Mensing that federal law does preempt the same kind of suit against manufacturers of generic prescription drugs. Justice Sotomayor argued that the 5-4 opinion “invents new principles of pre-emption law out of thin air to justify” its decision, and that the decision “makes little sense.”
As a result of PLIVA, consumers of brand-name drugs “can sue manufacturers for inadequate warnings,” while “consumers of generic drugs cannot.” Those harmed by dangerously inadequate warnings on generic-drug labels now cannot seek compensation for their injuries in state court even if the drug manufacturer knew of newly discovered health risks and failed to inform the FDA.
The Court has, of course, also been famously disappointing when it comes to economic fairness issues relating to unions. In Knox v. SEIU, the Court crafted a new constitutional rule making it harder for public sector unions to protect workers’ rights. In that case, a union imposed a temporary dues increase in order to raise funds to fight anti-worker initiatives placed on the California ballot without giving non-members a chance to opt out of this specific increase, as they do each year when normally setting dues. The temporary increase came soon after the annual opt-out opportunity had come and gone. The five conservative members of the Court ruled that when there is a special assessment or dues increase, the union cannot collect any additional dues from non-members unless they affirmatively opt in, which severely limits unions’ ability to protect workers when their rights are under attack. It also severely weakens a major institutional supporter of progressive candidates and causes at a time when the politically-minded Roberts Court is augmenting the strength of conservative-leaning corporations.
The issue of whether an opt-in regime was required was never in the scope of questions on which the Court granted review. Justice Sotomayor harshly condemned this action: “The majority’s refusal to abide by standard rules of appellate practice is unfair to the Circuit, which did not pass on this question, and especially to the respondent here, who suffers a loss in this Court without ever having an opportunity to address the merits of the question the Court decides.” As a result, “Alito’s ruling struck at the heart of American unionism … [coming] close to nationalizing the right-to-work laws that 23 states have adopted.”
While the Roberts Court has thus far left treacherous terrain for consumer protection and economic rights questions, an even more conservative court would spell a one-sided disaster. Class action suits by consumers would likely be completely barred against major corporations, as a result of their ability to craft arbitration agreements in their favor – no matter how lopsided, unfair and unconscionable. More and more, having one’s day in court would not be a practical option for consumers and employees who find themselves victims of misconduct by large corporations.
A Romney presidency could turn the environmental laws of this country into roadside litter. While the Environmental Protection Agency would be under the direct control of an environmentally reckless Administration which believes that “corporations are people,” a redefined Supreme Court would continue the erosion of our basic environmental framework laws. Romney-nominated Justices, taking after Romney hero Robert Bork, would effectively wipe out many of the statutory and regulatory protections that safeguard our air, water, and other natural resources.
For example, the addition of one more conservative justice could remove a substantial proportion of our nation’s waters from federal environmental protection under the Clean Water Act. In Rapanos v. United States, the plaintiffs wanted to fill their wetlands in order to build a shopping mall and condos. Four of the more conservative justices wanted to use a very narrow reading of the law. According to Scalia’s four-Justice plurality opinion, the phrase “the waters of the United States” includes only bodies of water that are “streams[,] … oceans, rivers, [and] lakes,” which would not include such things as wetlands. To find otherwise would “result in a significant impingement of the States’ traditional and primary power over land and water use.” 531 U. S., at 174.“ The four more liberal justices found this cramped definition inconsistent with the law’s stated purpose of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s water. They also concluded that regulation of wetlands by the Federal government as part of the term “waters of the United States” was perfectly valid and reasonable.
In this 4-1-4 decision, Justice Kennedy’s concurrence was more in line with the conservative approach, holding that only if a wetland or non-navigable waterway bears a “significant nexus” to a traditional navigable waterway does it fall within the power of the Clean Water Act. Such a nexus exists where the wetland or waterbody, either by itself or in combination with other similar sites, significantly affects the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of the downstream navigable waterway.
While Kennedy’s view did not restrict the Federal government’s ability to regulate wetlands as severely as the four other conservatives would have , the conflicting approaches have made the resulting precedent unclear and the balance a tenuous one. According to Lawrence Hurley of Greenwire, “[l]awyers rarely agree on anything, but here's an exception: They all say the Supreme Court bungled Rapanos . . .” As a result, the decision left wetlands regulation in a confusing “mess.” To be sure, adding another conservative justice would make wetlands regulation less confusing but only because it would be downright retrograde: it would mean that huge amounts of wetland would not be covered at all under the Clean Water Act.
A Romney-inflected Court would also have a major effect on the ability of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, twelve states and several cities sued the EPA in order to establish its power to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA had earlier found that it did not have the authority to do so. In a 5-4 decision, the EPA was found to have “offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change.” Therefore, [i]ts action was . . . ‘arbitrary, capricious, … or otherwise not in accordance with law.’”
Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, found that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA could avoid having to regulate in this area “only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do.” In contrast, Chief Justice Roberts said the court should not have found that Massachusetts or any of the other plaintiffs had standing to bring the action. The finding “has caused us to transgress ‘the proper — and properly limited — role of the courts in a democratic society,’” he said, quoting from a 1984 decision. He also said “[t]his court’s standing jurisprudence simply recognizes that redress of grievances of the sort at issue here is the function of Congress and the chief executive, not the federal courts.”
Roberts then argued that the alleged injury is “conjectural or hypothetical,” rather than “actual or imminent.” He also rejected the idea that the regulations Massachusetts sought would respond to an injury that was caused by the EPA’s inaction and that the requested rules would have the ability to redress its suspected injury:
Petitioners are never able to trace their alleged injuries back through this complex web to the fractional amount of global emissions that might have been limited with EPA standards. In light of the bit-part domestic new motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions have played in what petitioners describe as a 150-year global phenomenon, and the myriad additional factors bearing on petitioners' alleged injury--the loss of Massachusetts coastal land--the connection is far too speculative to establish causation.
On the other hand, Justice Scalia conveniently used Chevron as the heart of his dissent, stating (quite ironically, given his habit of discarding administrative judgments he dislikes), that “this Court has no business substituting its own desired outcome for the reasoned judgment of the responsible agency.” In short, by replacing one of the liberal Justices with a conservative, the ability of the states to force the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases would probably vanish sooner rather than later.
We have seen an already conservative court diminish the power of Federal agencies to enforce the Endangered Species Act. In National Association of Home Builders v. Defenders of Wildlife, a procedural conflict between agencies arose regarding the protection of endangered species. The Clean Water Act has specific requirements governing transfer applications, where NPDES permits may be enforced by state officials. On the other hand, the Endangered Species Act is largely enforced through the Commerce and Interior Departments of the Federal Government. At issue is whether the federal officials transferring authority to the state officials must also add the Endangered Species Act regulations when enforcing the CWA permits.
In the opinion, Justice Alito found that the Endangered Species Act did not apply in this case, and that Section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act does not effectively operate as a tenth criterion on which the EPA's transfer of certain permitting powers to state authorities under section 402(b) of the Clean Water Act must be conditioned. Justice Stevens dissented, writing that the Endangered Species Act's requirements should be given precedence over other aims of federal agencies, despite the conflict between the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
[The court] erroneously concludes that the ESA contains an unmentioned exception for nondiscretionary agency action and that the statute’s command to enjoin the completion of the Tellico Dam depended on the unmentioned fact that the TVA was attempting to perform a discretionary act. But both the text of the ESA and our opinion in Hill compel the contrary determination that Congress intended the ESA to apply to “all federal agencies” and to all “actions authorized, funded, or carried out by them.” Id., at 173 (emphasis deleted).
The resulting holding means that the provisions of the Endangered Species Act are of secondary concern when transferring enforcement to local officials, since the transfer is not considered a final agency action reviewable by the courts.
Adding another like-minded justice would also strengthen conservatives’ determination only to enforce environmental protection when they deem it cheap enough to apply without affecting the economic interests of industry. In Entergy Corporation v. Riverkeeper, Inc., the Court reviewed whether EPA could use a cost-benefit analysis in choosing the Best Available Technology to meet national performance standards. In a majority opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Court ruled that the EPA could use a cost-benefit analysis in setting the national performance standards:
The EPA’s view that § 1326(b)’s ‘best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact’ standard permits consideration of the technology’s costs and of the relationship between those costs and the environmental benefits produced governs if it is a reasonable interpretation of the statute – not necessarily the only possible interpretation, nor even the interpretation deemed most reasonable by the courts. Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843-844.
In this 5-3 decision, Justice Breyer agreed with some aspects of the majority’s opinion, but did not believe it should be as far-reaching as the more conservative justices did, stating that “those who sponsored the legislation intended the law’s text to be read as restricting, though not forbidding, the use of cost-benefit comparisons.” The other liberal justices believed the text of the law was misinterpreted entirely.
Many environmentalists argue that cost-benefit analysis ignores the “moral urgency” of environmental health and safety regulations, as well as being “relentlessly anti-regulatory in its design and implementation.” The consequences of Riverkeeper are that, if an environmental statute is ambiguous as to whether cost-benefit analysis is allowed, then it will be left to the agency to make the potentially controversial determination.
As is obvious from the precedents above, a court dominated by Romney appointees and other conservatives would do great harm to our nation’s environmental regulations, and our agencies’ powers to correct ever-more serious environmental harms.
A Romney-redefined Supreme Court would almost certainly mean the downfall of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. Nullifying Section Five would make it easier for jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices to make future changes in “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, or procedure with respect to voting…” This lifting of the key provision of the Voting Rights Act would include the practice of decennial redistricting.
In League of Latin American Citizens v. Perry (2006), the Court asked if the Texas Legislature violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act when it used 2000 Census data to redistrict for partisan advantage, resulting in districts that did not conform to the one person, one vote standard. Texas had already redistricted using the 2000 Census data with a Legislative Redistricting Board, but Republicans wanted more districts that benefited their party. In an effort spearheaded by Rep. Tom DeLay, the Legislature did the process over again in 2003 once both Houses of the Legislature gained a Republican majority.
The Court issued a fragmented set of opinions. Relying on different rationales, none of which garnered a clear majority, seven of the Justices rejected the plaintiffs’ invitation to rule that the Texas Legislature's statewide, mid-decade, partisan redistricting violated the “one-person one-vote” rule and was therefore unconstitutional. Only Justice Stevens (who is no longer on the Court) and Justice Breyer saw the partisan mid-decade redistricting as violating the First Amendment (by officially retaliating against voters for their political affiliation) and the Fourteenth Amendment (by intending to harm a politically disfavored group).
However, five Justices (Kennedy and the four more liberal Justices) ruled that part of the redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act by redrawing a district that was supposed to be Latino-majority in such a way as to deny Latino voters as a group the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choosing. (This was supposed to be a new Latino-majority district to make up for redistricting most Latinos out of a different, formerly Latino-majority district.) They found that the groups of Latinos put into the new district – some in the Austin area, others near the Mexican border – were not only separated by an enormous distance, but also had disparate needs and interests, mostly because their economic status differed considerably. Because of both factors combined, the new district was not “compact” as required under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and thus not likely to empower Latinos in the district to elect candidates of their choice. Rick Pildes argues this reflects an increasing “skepticism to grouping voters together based on racial or ethnic identity.”
Indeed, the Court further registered its skepticism in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder (2009). In that case, the district attempted to seek a bailout from the Section Five preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act because it had no history of racial discrimination. While the Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of Section Five, it agreed that the district was eligible to seek bailout under the Act.
In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts expressed skepticism as to whether the Voting Rights Act would be held constitutional in the near future:
More than 40 years ago, this Court concluded that "exceptional conditions" prevailing in certain parts of the country justified extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system. Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 334. In part due to the success of that legislation, we are now a very different Nation. Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.
Thus, acting in the name of constitutional avoidance, a nearly unanimous court upheld the Voting Rights Act. However, whether the Act will be held constitutional in the future is unknown. But it is clear that those odds drop precipitously with the addition of more conservative justices.
In Bartlett v. Strickland (2009), the Court held in a 5-4 decision that a minority group must constitute a numerical majority of the voting-age population in an area before Section Two of the Voting Rights Act would require the creation of a legislative district to prevent dilution of that group’s votes. When the district had been created in the previous redistricting, District 18 was a geographically compact majority-minority district. When it came time for the district to be redrawn however, the African-American voting age population had fallen below 50 percent. The legislators decided to split the county in order “to give African-American voters the potential to join with majority voters to elect the minority group’s candidate of choice.”
The decision resulted in turning 50% into a “magic number,” and will likely “reduce the number of majority-minority districts mandated by Section Two.” Many were heartened by Justice Kennedy’s comments that “racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history” and that “[m]uch remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions.” This was a closely divided decision won on the conservative side. Adding a more conservative jurist would likely further restrict the import of Section Two.
Restrictions at the Polls
Another hot voting rights issue involves the growing number of restrictions on voters when they go to the polls. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2008), the Court held that an Indiana law requiring voters to provide photo IDs did not violate the Constitution. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was deeply divided when it upheld the law, with the dissent characterizing the law as a thinly-veiled attempt to disenfranchise low-income Democratic Party voters.
While this was a 6-3 decision, with the generally liberal Justice Stevens joining the conservative majority, Stevens focused largely on the idea that the burden on voters obtaining the identification cards was low. This was due in part to the fact that the identification cards were free, and in part to the availability of provisional ballots, requiring an affidavit which did not require identification: “For most voters who need them, the inconvenience of making a trip to the BMV, gathering the required documents, and posing for a photograph surely does not qualify as a substantial burden on the right to vote, or even represent a significant increase over the usual burdens of voting.”
Conservative justices are much less likely to believe such factors are necessary in order for identification laws to be held constitutional. In fact, conservative justices often do not even see the need for safeguards such as absentee ballots. As Justice Scalia went to great pains to state in Crawford, “That the State accommodates some voters by permitting (not requiring) the casting of absentee or provisional ballots, is an indulgence—not a constitutional imperative that falls short of what is required.”
As a community, Latinos have been heavily affected by a number of Roberts Court cases relating to education, immigration and naturalization, worker’s documentation of citizenship, and redistricting in elections.
In 2011’s Chamber of Commerce of the US v. Whiting, Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the conservative majority (or, in parts, a plurality), upholding an Arizona law imposing draconian penalties on employers for hiring undocumented aliens, evading a federal law preempting such state laws. Specifically, the Court held that Federal law does not prevent Arizona from revoking the business licenses of state companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers (called “a death sentence for businesses”), or from requiring employers in that state to use a federal electronic system to check that their workers are authorized to work in the United States. The Obama Administration argued that the Arizona law conflicts with Federal immigration policy, and the issue at question was whether Arizona could add to the penalties of federal law with much tougher ones of its own.
This case was decided 5-3, with Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, and Ginsburg dissenting and Justice Kagan recused. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote “I cannot believe that Congress intended for the 50 states and countless localities to implement their own distinct enforcement and adjudication procedures for deciding whether employers have employed unauthorized aliens.” Justice Breyer also said that the law disrupts the goals of Congress by “seriously threaten[ing] the federal act’s antidiscrimination objectives by radically skewing the relevant penalties.”
However, in Arizona v. United States (the S.B. 1070 case), Roberts and Kennedy surprisingly joined three moderates to create a 5-3 majority limiting the ability of states to adopt even more aggressive legislation designed to make life so harsh for undocumented immigrants that they flee the state. Unlike the state laws upheld in Whiting, which regulated employers only, these directly targeted immigrants through the mechanism of criminal law.
In Arizona v. United States, the issue was whether federal immigration laws preclude what Arizona characterized as its novel efforts at “cooperative law enforcement.” The state law made failure to comply with federal alien-registration requirements a state misdemeanor, but this was struck down because the federal government has preempted the entire field of alien registration. The law also made it a misdemeanor for an unauthorized alien to seek or engage in work in the state, a provision which was struck down as obstructing federal policy on hiring undocumented aliens. It also authorized officers to arrest a person if an officer has probable cause to think that he or she has committed any public offense “that makes the person removable from the United States.” This provision, too, was struck down as obstructing federal policy on when to arrest an undocumented alien. The law also provided that officers should make efforts to verify a person’s immigration status during a stop, detention, or arrest ; this provision was upheld for now against a facial challenge but could be deemed unconstitutional as applied if the state engages in racial profiling.
The Court essentially held that the first three provisions were impermissible because they are preempted by federal law. The opinion “went far toward excluding states from having their own deportation policies.” The 5-3 decision was deemed to be close to a “rout in favor of the Obama Administration.” However, if the immigrant status verification provision is challenged against a regime of racial and ethnic profiling, the success of such a challenge will likely depend on who replaces the next Justice to leave this closely divided Court.
An election law case has also specifically affected Latinos, but in ways that could also affect other minority groups. In League of Latin American Citizens v. Perry (2006), five Justices (Kennedy and the four more liberal Justices) ruled that part of Texas’s redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act by redrawing a district that was supposed to be Latino-majority in such a way as to deny Latino voters as a group the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choosing. (This was supposed to be a new Latino-majority district to make up for redistricting most Latinos out of a different, formerly Latino-majority district.) They found that the groups of Latinos put into the new district – some in the Austin area, others near the Mexican border – were not only separated by an enormous distance, but also had disparate needs and interests, mostly because their economic status differed considerably. Because of both factors combined, the new district was not “compact” as required under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and thus not likely to empower Latinos in the district to elect candidates of their choice. Rick Pildes argues this reflects an increasing “skepticism to grouping voters together based on racial or ethnic identity.”
In Horne v. Flores, the Court remanded the case to determine whether Arizona’s general education funding budget supports Equal Educational Opportunities Act-compliant English Language Learner programming. The case was brought in 1992 on the grounds that the Nogales Unified School District had failed to follow the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, which requires a State "to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs."
In January 2000, the US District Court of Appeals for the District of Arizona had cited the state for civil contempt for failing to adequately fund English Language Learner programs, in violation
of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and subsequently rejected proposed legislation as inadequate to resolve the programs' deficiencies. The superintendent and representatives argued that increases in state funding, changes in the management of the school district, and passage of the No Child Left Behind Act sufficiently altered the foundations of the district court's original ruling to warrant relief.
The opinion held that, in evaluating the actions of the state, attention should focus on student outcomes rather than on spending and inputs to schools. The minority argued that majority opinion risks denying schoolchildren the English language instruction they need to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation.
In Flores-Villar v. US (2010), the Court was split 4-4 on the constitutionality of a law setting standards for when certain foreign-born children of unmarried parents can automatically claim U.S. citizenship. The law establishes minimum residency requirements for the parents before citizenship can automatically transfer to the child, but the requirement for fathers is more onerous than that for mothers. The Ninth Circuit had ruled that the law did not violate the Equal Protection Clause.
The relevant statute provided that a foreign-born child of unmarried parents obtains citizenship automatically through a U.S. citizen mother if she resided in the U.S. for one year prior to his birth; but through a U.S. citizen father only if he had resided in the U.S. prior to the birth for ten years, five of which must be after he was 14 years old. (The specifics of the law have since changed, but a gender disparity remains.)
Mr. Flores-Villar tried to avoid deportation by claiming citizenship. However, his father was 16 years old when Flores-Villar was born, making it impossible for him to fulfill the requirement that five years of his residency occur after the age of 14. If Flores-Villar had been born to a U.S. citizen mother with the same history of residency, he would automatically be a citizen today.
Justice Kagan recused herself because she had worked on the case as Solicitor General. The Court was split 4-4, with no indication as to the positions of any particular Justice. Only the judgment of the lower court was affirmed, with no written opinion, so the issue can reappear before the Court, with Kagan’s participation. Depending on who nominates the next Justices, the Court may make it harder for this class of immigrants to claim U.S. citizenship.
With the 5-Justice conservative majority in the driver’s seat, the Roberts Court has already had a sweeping effect on the campaign finance laws of this country, striking down one democracy-protecting regulation after another. Despite a history of campaign finance limits dating back to at least Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the “Corporate Court” has transformed the politics of the country by turning corporate treasuries into political slush funds and systematically rearranging the nation’s laws to benefit the rich, the powerful and the corporate. The Court’s upending of the nation’s campaign finance regime and its electoral politics reached its peak in the Citizens United decision, and many have already come to think of this as the Citizens United era.
The offensive against campaign finance rules has involved systematic demolition of the law known as “McCain-Feingold.” Officially titled the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, McCain-Feingold was created, in part, to regulate phony “issue ads” paid for by corporations in the weeks before an election. This Act made it a federal crime for a corporation to use its general treasury funds to pay for any "electioneering communication," which McCain-Feingold defined as any broadcast that referred to a candidate for federal office and was aired within 30 days of a federal primary election or 60 days of a federal general election in the jurisdiction where that candidate was running.
In 2007’s Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, the court ruled 5-4 that ads were eligible for an "as applied" exception to the McCain-Feingold limits on issue ads close to an election unless the ad could not reasonably be interpreted as anything other than urging the “election or defeat of a candidate for federal office.” It was said at the time that this first Roberts Court case undermining our campaign finance laws marked a “sea-change with respect to corporate speech rights [rather] than as a case upending the First Amendment’s general treatment of campaign finance regulation.” In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts stated that these issue ads were not the equivalent to contributions to candidates, and to “equate … [the] ads with contributions [would be] to ignore their value as political speech.”
Justice Souter, on the other hand, wrote in his dissent for the 4 moderates and liberals:
The ban on contributions will mean nothing much, now that companies and unions can save candidates the expense of advertising directly, simply by running ‘issue ads’ without express advocacy, or by funneling the money through an independent corporation like WRTL.
As Richard Briffault has said, this ruling was “no mere as-applied exception but an effective gutting of the law.” The New York Times points out that “[i]t is often hard … for the casual observer to tell the difference between [issue advocacy and express advocacy].”
In 2008’s Davis v. Federal Election Commission, the McCain-Feingold Act took another dramatic hit at the hands of the Court. McCain-Feingold contained a provision called the “Millionaire’s Amendment,” which changed campaign contribution limits for candidates facing wealthy, self-funding opponents. When the self-financing candidate uses more than $350,000 of his or her personal funds in his or her campaign, the individual contribution limit could triple for the non-self-financing candidate. This provision in the law was meant to help prevent a richer candidate from winning an election simply because of his or her personal wealth.
The Court struck down the Millionaire’s Amendment by a 5-4 margin along the predictable lines. In his opinion, Justice Alito found that there was no compelling “governmental interest in eliminating corruption or the perception of corruption” with the expenditure of personal funds. Instead, Alito argues that the use of personal funds reduces the likelihood of corruption in the political process. Thus, Alito states, “imposing different contribution and coordinated party expenditure limits on candidates vying for the same seat is antithetical to the First Amendment.”
In his dissent, Justice Stevens found that the provision was “a modest, sensible, and plainly constitutional attempt . . . to minimize the advantages enjoyed by wealthy candidates” compared to those who must rely on others to assist in funding their campaigns.
It cannot be gainsaid that the twin rationales at the heart of the Millionaire's Amendment--reducing the importance of wealth as a criterion for public office and countering the perception that seats in the United States Congress are available for purchase by the wealthiest bidder--are important Government interests.
The Court also undermined state campaign finance laws with the same perverse logic found in Davis. In Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, an Arizona state matching funds provision was challenged on the basis that it unconstitutionally penalizes free speech. Once matching funds were triggered in Arizona, publicly financed candidates received “one dollar for every dollar raised or spent by the privately raised candidate,” as well as those raised by any “independent groups that support[ed] the privately financed candidate.”
Arizona’s voters adopted the clean elections law in the 1990s to reduce the political corruption that was repeatedly driving the state into crisis. Two governors had faced criminal indictment. Nearly ten percent of the Arizona legislature ended up facing civil or criminal charges after several legislators were caught on video accepting campaign contributions and bribes in exchange for legislative acts. Arizonans thus acted to reduce candidates’ dependence on wealthy campaign funders and restore integrity to their elections.
Nevertheless, the Court held that Arizona’s law discriminated against the wealthy self-funded candidates. According to the Court, the law “substantially burdens political speech and is not sufficiently justified by a compelling interest to survive First Amendment scrutiny.” Chief Justice Roberts argued that the law would cause self-funded candidates as well as supportive independent expenditure groups to spend less, impairing their free speech rights.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Kagan pointed out that the law did nothing more than add to the quantity of political speech in the campaign. She wrote that “the Act promotes the values underlying both the First Amendment and our entire Constitution by enhancing the “opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people.” Moreover, the quality of the speech market is enhanced because“[c]andidates who rely on public, rather than private, moneys are ‘beholden [to] no person and, if elected, should feel no postelection obligation toward any contributor.’” As Justice Kagan stated, “in this case, the majority says that the prospect of more speech—responsive speech, competitive speech, the kind of speech that drives public debate—counts as a constitutional injury.” In essence, the majority found that the wealthy have not only a right to spend to the heavens in pursuit of public office but a right to freeze their cash advantage over opponents.
However, the Court had an even more devastating blow to deliver to the nation’s campaign finance structure in the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. In Citizens United, advertisements for Hillary: The Movie had run within 30 days of a primary, thus violating the McCain-Feingold restrictions on “electioneering communications.” Instead of ruling on whether the movie was a political communication under the statute, a question that could have been easily resolved for the plaintiffs, the conservative justices ordered the case reargued to address a constitutional question not raised by the litigants – whether Section 203 of McCain-Feingold violated the First Amendment because corporations have an unlimited right to spend money in political campaigns.
True to form, the Court found the prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech. Specifically, Kennedy’s 5-4 decision held that corporations have the same First Amendment political speech rights as individuals and that they can make unlimited independent expenditures from their general corporate accounts. Kennedy wrote, "If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."
Both the substance and the process of the ruling shocked and dismayed the more liberal justices. Indeed, before the case was reargued but while the conservatives were nonetheless planning to “resolve” the constitutional issue no one had raised, Justice Souter originally wrote a dissent that reportedly “aired some of the Court’s dirty laundry.” According to Jeffrey Toobin, Souter “accused the Chief Justice of violating the Court’s own procedures to engineer the result he wanted.” However, the case was reargued in the next session, and by then Souter had retired. Justice Stevens read part of his ninety-page dissent from the bench, something “quite unusual for a dissenter to do.”
Stevens argued that the ruling "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution." Stevens later wrote that "[a] democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold." Additionally, Stevens disagrees with such an extreme extension of the legal fiction of corporations’ “personhood,” pointing out that corporations are not “members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”
The Citizens United ruling has been called “the most serious threat to American democracy in a generation.” Richard Hasen argues that it “increases the dangers of corruption in our political system and it ignores the strong tradition of American political equality.” Indeed, Justice Stevens concluded with the following:
At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.
The Court continued the precedent of Citizens United in American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock. Without even hearing oral arguments, the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 vote to summarily reverse a Montana Supreme Court decision upholding a 1912 voter-approved ban on corporations’ spending of their own money on political campaigns in that state.
Despite the fact that Montana’s highest court had found that the state had a history of profoundly corrupt corporate influence in politics, the Court held that Montana’s argument was already rejected in Citizens United. In his dissent, Justice Breyer pointed out that in Citizens United, the Court found that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” but that “independent expenditures by corporations” in Bullock “did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana.” Any illusion that one or more of the conservative Justices would have ruled differently in Citizens United had they known the impact it would have was shattered by the decision in the Montana case. Yet the issue is bound to arise again in one form or another, and its fate will be determined by who will be nominating the next Supreme Court Justice.
The Roberts Court has had a bad effect on the rights of women. In particular, the Court has set back women’s rights when it comes to equal pay and fair treatment in the workplace as well as women’s reproductive choice. Congress was able to reverse a critically damaging decision with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but a woman’s constitutional right to choose hangs by a thread. Mitt Romney’s constitutional right-hand man, Robert Bork, is a sworn enemy of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey and calls feminism a “totalitarian” movement.
Conservatives on the Court have been looking for ways to cut back on women’s rights to reproductive choice. In Gonzales v. Carhart, for example, the Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The law, signed by President Bush in 2003, bans a procedure referred to as intact dilation and extraction. The law bans a procedure “found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.” The law has no exceptions for the health of the woman, as required under precedent, including the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion reinforcing the core right of a woman to choose.
In 2000, when Justice O’Connor was still serving, the Court struck down a nearly identical law, with O’Connor part of the 5-4 majority. However, when Justice Alito replaced her, the result was quite different: In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the Act. Justice Kennedy wrote that the federal ban would only be unconstitutional “if it subjected women to significant health risks.” Kennedy argued that safe medical options are available, so the case does not infringe upon a woman’s right to choose: “[t]he Act allows…a commonly used and generally accepted method, so it does not construct a substantial obstacle to the abortion right.” Kennedy’s decision relied in part on paternalistic views of women: that women regret their choices to have abortions; and that because of women’s fragile emotional state and the mother’s bond of love for her child, the state may deprive them of the right to make an autonomous choice.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsberg found the decision “alarming.” She particularly took issue with the absence of a health exception, citing “women who, in the judgment of their doctors, require an intact D & E because other procedures would place their health at risk.” The Justice also called the decision “irrational,” pointing out that the decision strays far from “our earlier invocations of ‘the rule of law’ and the ‘principles of stare decisis.”
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists described the Court's decision as "shameful and incomprehensible." The New England Journal of Medicine criticized the decision, writing: “[f]or the first time, the Court permits congressional judgment to replace medical judgment.” The Center for Reproductive Rights called the decision “a sharp reversal from prior abortion jurisprudence.”
In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the Court considered whether a person can bring a salary discrimination suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when the disparate pay is received during the 180-day statutory limitations period, but is the result of discriminatory pay decisions that occurred outside the limitations period. Lilly Ledbetter had been given “poor evaluations because of her sex,” and as a result, “these past pay decisions continued to affect the amount of her pay throughout her employment.” The pay difference between Ledbetter and her male counterparts was “stark,” with her pay rate at $3,727 per month, while “the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, the highest paid, $5,236.”
In a 5-4 decision, the Court gave a cramped interpretation to the statute’s 180-day requirement. It ruled that Ledbetter could not sue her employer because the 180-day window to file her discrimination claim began to run when her employers set her salary illegally, rather than being renewed each time she got a paycheck reflecting illegal discrimination. This meant that by the time she discovered the pay discrimination, she was plain out of luck. Justice Alito argued that the Court was “not in a position to evaluate Ledbetter’s policy arguments,” and that it is not the job of the Court to change Title VII in order to “balance the interests of aggrieved employees.”
Justice Ginsburg read a powerful dissenting opinion from the bench in order to “criticize the majority for opinions that she said undermine women’s rights.” Ginsburg argued that the Court should not apply the 180-day limit that way, citing the fact that pay disparities occur in small increments over time, and that employers tend to keep their reasons for pay raises confidential. Ginsburg also argued that the Court’s “cramped interpretation of Title VII” was irreconcilable with the statute’s “broad remedial purpose.”
As a result of the Court’s decision, lower courts used the precedent to reject a wide variety of lawsuits claiming discrimination based on race, sex, age, and disability. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, in order to correct the Court’s decision.
In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, one and a half million current and former female employees accused Wal-Mart of employment discrimination. In one of the largest class actions ever, the employees alleged that local managers’ broad discrimination in pay and promotion opportunities violated Title VII by discriminating against women.
The Court held in a 5-4 decision that the plaintiffs could not proceed as to any kind of class action suit because they did not have enough in common to constitute a class. In his opinion, Justice Scalia wrote “Wal-Mart is entitled to individualized determinations of each employee's eligibility for backpay.”
The four liberals agreed with the five conservatives that the case for back pay could not proceed as a class under Federal Rule 23(b)(2). However, the liberal justices did not agree as to whether any kind of class action suit would be barred. Justice Ginsburg wrote that Wal-Mart’s “delegation of discretion over pay is a policy uniform throughout all stores,” and that “each individual’s unique circumstances” with discrimination “should not factor into the Rule 23(a)(2) determination.” Without a class action determination, each employee will have to sue in much smaller classes or even on their own, making it much for difficult to obtain justice.
As bad as these developments were, things could get even worse for women if a future President Romney chooses conservative justices for the Supreme Court. A woman’s right to choose and the ability to combat employment discrimination would be further imperiled. For instance, we may see the Court decide whether an employee can prohibit an aggrieved employee from class action lawsuits (or any type of lawsuit) by requiring new hires to agree to settle grievances by arbitration. In addition, anti-choice “personhood” proponents are eagerly trying to create a test case in which Roe v. Wade will be completely overruled, rather than whittled away on a case-by-case basis. So the stakes are high for women in this election.
The Roberts Court has had negative consequences for workplace fairness and dignity. It has made it much more difficult for workers to file class action suits and to escape unconscionable contracts. It has made it more difficult to bring suits based upon age discrimination (as well as sex discrimination, as discussed above), and it has laid the groundwork for letting companies force employees into arbitration for any conflicts that arise.
Physical Harm on the Job
The addition of another conservative justice is likely to have negative consequences for the rights of employees to hold their employers accountable for harm caused on the job. In CSX Transportation v. McBride, the Court considered whether an injured railroad employee suing under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) has to prove that his employer’s negligence was the main cause of his injury, or only that it played some part in the injury. Reversal of the lower court would have made it harder for injured employees to hold railroads accountable under FELA.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that under FELA, injury was proximately caused by the railroad's negligence if that negligence played any part in causing the injury. In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg held that “a defendant railroad ‘caused or contributed to’ a railroad worker's injury ‘if [the railroad's] negligence played a part--no matter how small--in bringing about the injury.’” In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts felt that the decision meant that “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to employees’ liability claims, stating “[w]here does ‘foreseeability of harm’ as the sole protection against limitless liability run out of steam?” Justice Thomas voted with the four liberals on most aspects of this case. Therefore, despite a conservative majority, the Court was able to come up with a decision allowing railroad workers to exercise the rights that Congress granted them.
Employee Rights and Arbitration Cases
In 14 Penn Plaza v. Pyett, the Court asked whether a provision in a collective-bargaining agreement requiring union members to arbitrate claims arising under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 is enforceable. When plaintiffs believed that their job reassignments were the result of age discrimination, they sued despite a union-negotiated waiver of a right to litigate certain federal statutory claims. The Court had ruled in 1974 that an individual’s statutory rights under federal anti-discrimination statutes (including the right to go to court) cannot be waived in union-negotiated contracts.
Nevertheless, in a 5-4 decision, Justice Thomas (joined by the other conservatives) held that the provision in the collective-bargaining agreement is enforceable as a matter of federal law: “Nothing in the law suggests a distinction between the status of arbitration agreements signed by an individual employee and those agreed to by a union representative.” The majority believed that arbitration is an efficient and acceptable forum for addressing grievances related to employment discrimination.
In his dissent, Justice Souter stated “Congress itself has … operated on the assumption that a [collective bargaining agreement] cannot waive employees’ rights to a judicial forum to enforce antidiscrimination statutes.” Justice Stevens added, “Notwithstanding the absence of change in any relevant statutory provision, the Court has recently retreated from, and in some cases reversed, prior decisions based on its changed view of the merits of arbitration. … It is for Congress, rather than this Court, to reassess the policy arguments favoring arbitration and revise the relevant provisions to reflect its views.”
Employee rights are also threatened from a consumer rights case. In the AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion case discussed above, the hard-right 5-4 majority forced defrauded consumers to comply with contracts so unconscionable and unbalanced as to be illegal under state law. The Court’s undermining of state consumer protection laws could also weaken legal protections against employment discrimination, since large employers often use their overwhelming bargaining power to force new employees to sign the same kinds of arbitration agreements. In essence, the Court might allow powerful companies to force employees to sign away their right to go to court – especially in a class action case – to combat illegal discrimination.
In Gross v. FBL Financial Services, an employee believed he was the victim of age discrimination when many of his responsibilities were transferred to a former subordinate in a newly created position. The Court addressed whether a plaintiff must present direct evidence of age discrimination in order to obtain a mixed-motives jury instruction in a suit brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. (A “mixed motive” case is one where an employer makes an employment decision based on both lawful and unlawful bases.)
In a 5-4 decision split along the predictable lines, the Court held that the worker must prove that age is the key factor in an employment decision, not just that age played a role in the decision. In his opinion, Justice Thomas stated:
We hold that a plaintiff bringing a disparate-treatment claim pursuant to the ADEA must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that age was the "but-for" cause of the challenged adverse employment action. The burden of persuasion does not shift to the employer to show that it would have taken the action regardless of age, even when a plaintiff has produced some evidence that age was one motivating factor in that decision.
The decision made it much harder to prove an age discrimination suit. In his dissent, Justice Stevens pointed out that the opinion “utter[ly] disregard[s] … our precedent and Congress' intent.” “[I]t is particularly inappropriate for the court, on its own initiative, to adopt an interpretation of the causation requirement in the ADEA that differs from the established reading of Title VII.”
Despite the setbacks on workplace fairness already imposed by the Roberts Court, a Romney presidency would likely make things worse. Romney nominees would likely make it much easier for employers to escape liability for illegal discrimination against or actual physical harm to workers. They would also likely strengthen the current Court’s efforts to weaken unions.
A Romney Presidency could have a significant and negative impact on the Court’s approach to issues of racial discrimination and racial equity. The Roberts Court has already made moves to push back on certain actions to promote affirmative action and school desegregation. However, an increase in the number of conservatives on the Supreme Court could bring to a close many remedial actions to deal with past and present discrimination.
In Ricci v. DeStefano, the City of New Haven used objective examinations to determine promotions within the fire department. When the results showed that white candidates outperformed minority candidates, the city recognized that the tests may have been flawed and, to avoid being sued under federal civil rights laws for using a flawed test with a racially disparate impact, the results were thrown out based upon the racial disparity. The white candidates sued based upon racial discrimination.
The Court held 5-4 that the City violated Title VII by discarding the tests. In his opinion, Justice Kennedy (joined by the other conservatives) found that an action such as New Haven’s is prohibited “unless the employer can demonstrate a strong basis in evidence that, had it not taken the action, it would have been liable under the disparate-impact statute.”
In so holding, the Court pretends that "[t]he City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.” Ante, at ____, 174 L. Ed. 2d, at 507. That pretension, essential to the Court's disposition, ignores substantial evidence of multiple flaws in the tests New Haven used. The Court similarly fails to acknowledge the better tests used in other cities, which have yielded less racially skewed outcomes.
As Sheila Foster, a law professor at Fordham, noted “this decision will change the landscape of civil rights law.” Ricci makes it much harder for public institutions to end discriminatory practices voluntarily.
In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, two school districts voluntarily desegregated in order to achieve racial balance. The school districts took students’ race into account in assigning certain students to particular schools in order to achieve racially integrated schools. Parents sued the school districts, claiming the plans violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court held that public schools may not use students’ race as the sole determining factor for assigning them to schools. Applying “strict scrutiny,” the five conservatives agreed that the plans were not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, but the five were split among themselves. Four of them (the five minus Kennedy) wrote that the school districts’ goal of racial diversity was not only not compelling, it was not even legitimate. Chief Justice Roberts (writing for the four Justices) stated that "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." In contrast, Kennedy wrote that the goal is compelling, but that directly looking at the race of individual students was not a sufficiently narrowly tailored way to meet that goal. He argued that school districts could constitutionally use race as a factor without looking at the race of individual students. Examples he gave included strategic site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race.
In the principal dissent, Justice Breyer called the opinion “radical,” stating that “[t]his is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret.” Writing for the four dissenters, he explained in detail why racial diversity in primary and secondary public schools is a compelling government interest. Justice Stevens went so far to say “[i]t is my firm conviction that no member of the court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today’s decision.”
The Use of Race in Redistricting
Adding Romney-nominated far-right Justices to the Supreme Court could mean the downfall of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. Getting rid of Section Five would make it easier to discriminate against minority groups with changes in “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, or procedure with respect to voting…” in jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices. This includes the practice of redistricting, which occurs at least once per decade after the US Census is released.
In League of Latin American Citizens v. Perry (2006), five Justices (Kennedy and the four more liberal Justices) ruled that part of Texas’s redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act by redrawing a district that was supposed to be Latino-majority in such a way as to deny Latino voters as a group the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choosing. (This was supposed to be a new Latino-majority district to make up for redistricting most Latinos out of a different, formerly Latino-majority district.) They found that the groups of Latinos put into the new district – some in the Austin area, others near the Mexican border – were not only separated by an enormous distance, but also had disparate needs and interests, mostly because their economic status differed considerably. Because of both factors combined, the new district was not “compact” as required under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and thus not likely to empower Latinos in the district to elect candidates of their choice. Rick Pildes argues this reflects an increasing “skepticism to grouping voters together based on racial or ethnic identity.”
Most recent cases implicating LGBT rights predate the Roberts Court, but five of the nine serving Justices participated in key Rehnquist Court decisions: Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer. We can make educated predictions about how they might rule in future cases: Scalia and Thomas are instinctively hostile to claims that anti-LGBT laws violate the Constitution, while Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer have demonstrated a more expansive vision of constitutional protection for members of the LGBT community.
The Court broke new ground in LGBT rights in the 1996 case of Romer v. Evans. In 1992, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to bar state and local governments from prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (“Amendment 2”). The measure repealed a number of existing anti-discrimination statutes, regulations, ordinances, and policies and made it exceptionally difficult for gay people to achieve civil rights protections. The Court ruled 6-3 that Amendment 2 violated the federal Equal Protection Clause, with Justice Kennedy writing the majority opinion. Ginsburg and Breyer joined Kennedy’s opinion, while Scalia and Thomas dissented.
The majority noted that “[h]omosexuals, by state decree, are put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres. The amendment withdraws from homosexuals, but no others, specific legal protection from the injuries caused by discrimination, and it forbids reinstatement of these laws and policies.” The Court rejected the conservative line that Amendment 2 simply denied gays and lesbians access to “special rights.” “To the contrary, the amendment imposes a special disability upon those persons alone. Homosexuals are forbidden the safeguards that others enjoy or may seek without constraint.”
The Court did not address the question of whether classifications based on sexual orientation trigger heightened Equal Protection scrutiny (as with race and sex, for instance), because Amendment 2 failed even the low-level rational-basis scrutiny given to ordinary legislation: that it must bear a rational relation to some legitimate end, since Amendment 2 “seem[ed] inexplicable by anything except animus toward the class it affect[ed],” which is not a legitimate end.
Justice Scalia’s dissent criticized the majority for pronouncing that animosity toward homosexuality is wrong and defended the right of the majority to legislate on the basis of their moral disapproval of homosexuality. He characterized Amendment 2 as not disfavoring gays in any substantive sense, but only denying them preferential treatment. He called it a legitimate response against a small population that concentrated in cities, was disproportionately wealthy, had extraordinary political influence beyond their small numbers, opposed traditional morality, and had successfully brought its quest for “social endorsement” from New York, San Francisco, LA, and Key West to major Colorado cities like Denver, Aspen, and Boulder.
Importantly, the question of the appropriate level of Equal Protection scrutiny for laws classifying on the basis of sexual orientation remains open to this day. Most lower courts that have struck down anti-LGBT equality laws have done so using the rational basis test. Many other courts, applying the same test, have upheld such laws. The guidance that other courts receive from an Obama Court or a Romney Court will determine the extent to which LGBT people will be able to vindicate their basic constitutional rights in court.
The second major case directly implicating LGBT rights was Lawrence v. Texas , which struck down a state law criminalizing “deviate sexual intercourse” between people of the same sex. Police officers who had been notified about a weapons disturbance entered John Lawrence’s home, allegedly saw him having sex with another man, and arrested them both. They were fined $200 apiece, and they appealed.
The Supreme Court held that under the liberty interest contained in the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, adults have a constitutional right to engage in private, consensual sex with members of the same sex. In so doing, it reversed the 1986 case of Bowers v. Hardwick, which had upheld state anti-sodomy laws as applied to same-sex relations. Bowers had held that the 14th Amendment’s right to privacy (through the Due Process Clause) did not extend to the right to have sex with people of the same sex. (Neither that case nor any others addressed whether such laws, either as written or as enforced, unconstitutionally targeted gays and lesbians in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.)
The Lawrence Court determined 6-3 that the Texas law violated the Constitution, with Justice Kennedy writing for five Justices (including Ginsburg and Breyer) that Bowers should be overturned. (Justice O’Connor, who has since been replaced by Justice Alito, concurred only in the judgment. She would not have overruled Bowers or ruled on the Due Process issue, but instead wrote that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause.) Among the three dissenters, Scalia and Thomas are still on the Court.
Justice Kennedy wrote that the right to liberty under the Due Process Clause includes a promise that there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not invade. The Court concluded that sodomy laws’ criminal penalties and purposes have “far-reaching consequences, touching upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home. The statutes do seek to control a personal relationship that, whether or not entitled to formal recognition in the law, is within the liberty of persons to choose without being punished as criminals. … When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring. The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice.” Bowers did not recognize this liberty interest and was wrongly decided.
Just as it is for heterosexuals, sexual intimacy for gays and lesbians is a matter “involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, [which] are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.” The majority ruled that the Texas statute furthered no legitimate state interest that could justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual; moral
condemnation, alone, is not sufficient grounds for legislation intruding upon fundamental liberty. Therefore, the law was unconstitutional.
Scalia’s dissent (joined by Thomas) did not characterize the case as being about the human act of sexual intimacy and all that entails for fundamental liberty, but instead as about “homosexual sodomy,” the protection of which is not “deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition” (the test for whether it is a fundamental liberty interest). He characterized the majority’s conclusion that there was no legitimate state interest in adopting the law (so that the law had no rational basis) as “out of accord with … the jurisprudence of any society we know.” If the state cannot further the belief of its citizens that certain forms of sexual behavior are immoral and unacceptable – the same interest furthered by criminal laws against fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity – then, according to Scalia, none of these other laws could survive rational basis review. Similarly, since the majority (according to Scalia) delegitimizes morals-based laws, the dissent argues that it calls into question laws against same-sex marriage, prostitution, bigamy, obscenity, and adult incest.
Scalia addressed marriage equality in more detail at the end of his Lawrence dissent:
Today's opinion dismantles the structure of constitutional law that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions, insofar as formal recognition in marriage is concerned. If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is "no legitimate state interest" for purposes of proscribing that conduct; and if, as the Court coos (casting aside all pretense of neutrality), "when sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring,;" what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising "the liberty protected by the Constitution?" Surely not the encouragement of procreation, since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry.
The Lawrence majority also suggested that laws against same-sex sexual activity should not be seen as punishing conduct rather than punishing status: “When homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law of the State, that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres.”
Both Lawrence and Romer were decided 6-3, with Justices Kennedy and O’Connor voting with the liberals. With Alito replacing O’Connor (and assuming Roberts, Sotomayor, and Kagan would vote the same way as the Justices they replaced), there may only be a 5-4 majority still supporting these two critically important foundations of LGBT rights. Both could fall to an aggressively conservative Supreme Court majority empowered by a new Romney nominee.
In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, a 5-4 conservative majority (including current Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas) ruled that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) had a constitutional right to exclude gay men from leadership positions, trumping a New Jersey law prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation on the basis of sexual orientation. James Dale, an accomplished Scout as a youth, became an adult leader but was fired from his leadership position when the BSA discovered from a newspaper article that he was gay.
The majority opinion (written by then-Chief Justice Rehnquist) concluded that BSA’s mission – to inculcate values in young boys, using adult men as guides and examples – made it an “expressive association” subject to First Amendment protections. BSA stated in the litigation that it teaches Scouts that homosexual conduct is not “morally straight," and that it does not want to promote “homosexual conduct” as a legitimate form of behavior. The majority accepted this assertion as fact, concluding that opposition to “homosexual conduct” was part of the value system the BSA promoted as part of its mission. Therefore, he wrote, its First Amendment right of expressive association would be violated by a state requirement to admit an openly gay scoutmaster: That would significantly burden BSA’s desire to not promote “homosexual conduct” as a legitimate form of behavior. The majority ruled that the state interests in the public accommodations law did not justify such a severe intrusion.
The four dissenters (including currently serving Justices Ginsburg and Breyer) countered that the BSA, despite its claims during litigation, did not in fact hold condemnation of homosexuality as part of its core beliefs. They analyzed BSA’s Scout Oath, Scout Law, and Scout Handbook, which require that scouts be “morally straight” and clean.” These and other basic material do not mention homosexuality. In addition, the organization’s rules for scoutmasters directs them “not [to] undertake to instruct Scouts, in any formalized manner, in the subject of sex and family life. The reasons are that it is not construed to be Scouting's proper area…”
The dissent found no evidence that BSA actually taught scouts that homosexuality or homosexual conduct was contrary to being “morally straight” or “clean.” As a result, BSA’s ban on gay members and leaders clearly did not follow from its founding principles and was not part of its expressive activities. As a result, they wrote, the anti-discrimination law did not impose any serious burdens on BSA’s collective effort on behalf of shared goals, nor did it force BSA to communicate any message that it did not wish to endorse: The state law did not abridge their constitutional rights.
In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010) , a sharply divided Court upheld a state university’s policy of withholding official recognition from any student group that does not welcome all students regardless of status or beliefs as members or leaders. University of California, Hastings College of the Law had denied official recognition to a conservative Christian group that required members to subscribe to its religious beliefs, including those against homosexuality. The school’s written policy prohibited unlawful discrimination in all school-sponsored activities. Importantly, the administration interpreted this policy to require officially recognized organizations to “accept all comers” in membership and leadership, regardless of status or beliefs. [General requirements unrelated to status or beliefs, such as a skills requirement, were acceptable.] Even more importantly, the parties stipulated early in the litigation that this was, indeed, the school’s policy.
Justice Ginsburg wrote for the liberals, joined in this case by Kennedy. Under Court precedent, a state university cannot constitutionally withhold recognition on the basis of a group’s viewpoints. However, according to Ginsburg, an “accept all comers” policy is a viewpoint-neutral approach that does not violate the First Amendment rights of the Christian Legal Society (CLS). “CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings' policy. The First Amendment shields CLS against state prohibition of the organization's expressive activity, however exclusionary that activity may be. But CLS enjoys no constitutional right to state subvention of its selectivity.”
This “all-comers” policy created a limited public forum, where states have a right to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated. Restrictions on access to a limited public forum are permitted as long as they are reasonable and viewpoint-neutral, as the majority says was the case here.
Justice Ginsburg also rejected CLS’s assertion that it did not exclude people simply on the basis of sexual orientation (which violates the “all-comers” policy) but because of a conjunction of conduct with a belief that the conduct is not wrong. Citing Lawrence, she wrote that the Court’s “decisions have declined to distinguish between status and conduct in this context.”
The conservative dissenters, in an opinion authored by Justice Alito, framed this as a case of a group’s being targeted by the university for its beliefs. They argued that CLS was the only group to be denied official recognition. They also argued that the “all comers” formulation arose for the first time during this litigation. Therefore, they sought to ignore the stipulation of fact that said otherwise, prompting a lecture from the majority on what it means when parties stipulate to a set of facts.
The dissent also argued that even assuming the “accept all comers” policy was in play, that policy contradicts the basic purpose of the limited public forum that Hastings had created. The purpose, they said, was to recreate on campus the broad array of organizations similar to what exists off campus. Since the state cannot force expressive groups to accept members who disagree with the organization’s principles, having such a system on campus avoids the replication of the outside world that Hastings seeks to create. In addition, the parties stipulated that the purpose of the limited public forum is to promote a diversity of viewpoints "among" – not “within” – registered student organizations.
In the next term, the Roberts Court is likely to hear cases reviewing the constitutionality of Proposition 8 (which was decided on very narrow grounds applicable only to California by the Ninth Circuit, but which could nevertheless be expanded to include whether a state’s denial of marriage equality violates the U.S. Constitution); and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act’s denial of federal recognition to gay and lesbian couples’ legal, state-recognized marriages. The Court may also address in the next year or so whether – and, if so, to what extent – the Free Exercise Clause (and, on the federal level only, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) gives individuals and institutions the right to discriminate against LGBT people on the basis of religion, even if there are anti-discrimination laws to the contrary.
As documented in this report, a great deal of damage has already been done by the Justices that Mitt Romney promises to use as his models if he is ever given the chance to fill a vacancy on our nation’s highest court. These Justices have sought, often with success, to roll back environmental protections as well as civil rights for minorities, women, and LGBT communities. They put even more power in the hands of corporations, twisting the law to support powerful corporate interests rather than everyday Americans. Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas – America cannot afford to elect a president who wants to nominate more Supreme Court Justices like these.
As much damage as Romney could do to America over a four-year term, it pales in comparison to the damage his Supreme Court Justices would do over the decades of their lifetime service on the Court. With the election rapidly approaching, the stakes for America could not be higher. The outcome of this election could shape Supreme Court decisions – and, in turn, the rights of everyday Americans – for generations to come.
Appendix: Key 5-4 Cases Roberts Court Cases
A. 5-4 Roberts Court Cases Where the Right Wing Won
Citizens United v. FEC (2010) gave corporations the ability to spend unlimited funds from their corporate treasury to affect elections.
The 5-4 right-wing majority overruled precedent and struck down prohibitions on corporations using their general treasury to finance independent expenditures or electioneering communications. They ruled that limiting speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity was unconstitutional. Reversing precedent, they ruled that government has no interest in countering the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form, because that unconstitutionally interferes with the marketplace of ideas. They also rejected the relevance of an anti-corruption rationale for limiting independent expenditures including those made by corporations, saying they do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.
Davis v. Federal Election Commission (2008) helped wealthy candidates maintain a large financial advantage over their opponents.
The conservative 5-4 majority struck down the McCain-Feingold “Millionaires’ Amendment,” in which candidates who spend more than certain amounts of their own money on their campaigns might render their opponents eligible for higher limits on individual contributions and party-coordinated expenditures. Congress acted to reduce the advantage of wealthy candidates and combat the perception that congressional seats are for sale to the highest bidder. The Court ruled that the law effectively penalized candidates who spent large amounts of their own funds on their campaigns in violation of the First Amendment. The Court determined that the burden this places on wealthy candidates is not justified by any governmental interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption, and that equalizing electoral opportunities for candidates of different personal wealth was not a permissible Congressional purpose.
Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett (2011) struck down a campaign public financing program designed to break candidates' dependence on large donors and bundlers.
After years of scandal, Arizona’s voters adopted a voluntary public financing system in the 1990s to reduce candidates’ dependence on wealthy campaign funders and restore integrity to their elections. The law provided matching funds for publicly financed candidates when either an opposing privately-funded candidate spent more than a certain amount, or an independent group spent more than a certain amount campaigning against the publicly funded candidate. But the 5-4 majority held that the law unconstitutionally chilled political speech by imposing a penalty for it: If you give money to a candidate or spend money opposing a candidate, the result will be strengthening the candidate who you oppose. The dissenters argued that the law didn’t chill speech but subsidized it in a content-neutral manner. As the dissenters wrote, the interests opposing the law “are able to convey their ideas without public financing—and they would prefer the field to themselves, so that they can speak free from response.”
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber (2007) severely limited the ability of victims of pay discrimination to obtain compensation for the discrimination.
After working for the same company for many years, Lilly Ledbetter got an anonymous tip that for years on end she was being paid far less than were her male colleagues doing the same work due to a discriminatory evaluation. She sued and a jury awarded her back pay, but the Court ruled that she should have filed her lawsuit within 180 days of the discriminatory evaluation. The far-right Justices rejected the view that each paycheck received that was based on a discriminatory evaluation starts a new 180-day clock running on the time to sue. This cramped interpretation was not compatible with the law’s purpose of eliminating discrimination. Many employees have no idea what their co-workers earn, and discriminatory pay is often hidden by employers. Because of this decision, it is now much harder for victims of illegal pay discrimination to recover the back pay to which they are entitled, and it is much easier for companies to get away with illegal discrimination.
Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes (2011) made it harder for victims of systemic employment discrimination by large employers to file class action lawsuits.
By a 5-4 vote, the conservatives overturned a class certification in a lawsuit by up to 1.5 million women plaintiffs contending that they had suffered sex discrimination as Wal-Mart employees under a system of standardless pay and promotion decisions delegated to mostly male local management teams all over the country. Women occupy 70% of the hourly jobs in Wal-Mart stores but only 33% of management employees; the higher one looks on the corporate ladder, the fewer women appear; and women are paid less than men in every region. The women presented evidence that Wal-Mart has a national corporate climate infused with invidious bias against women. Wal-Mart’s policy is to have personnel decisions made by local managers, all of whom are products of that toxic corporate climate. Because local managers made the decisions without guidance or standards from the company, the right-wing majority concluded that there was no “common contention” uniting the women’s claims, so they cannot form a class. This decision will make it harder to certify large class action lawsuits of any type.
Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals (2012) poked a hole in the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The FMLA requires covered employers to provide at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for employees to take care of sick family members or themselves. Aggrieved employees can sue their employers, but when the employer is the government, they can sue only if the government entity lacks sovereign immunity. A previous case had held that Congress constitutionally abrogated the states’ sovereign immunity for the FMLA’s provision on family-care as an exercise of its 14th Amendment authority to enforce the Equal Protection Clause, since it was designed to address discrimination against women. However, the 5-4 conservative majority ignored the history of self-care provision and ruled that FMLA protections for sick workers needing time off to take care of themselves were not passed to remedy sex discrimination and therefore were not an exercise of congressional authority under the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, aggrieved state and local government employees were stripped of their ability to sue for violations of the self-care provision of the FMLA.
Ricci v. DeStefano (2009) limited employers’ ability to diversify their workforce and avoid lawsuits for illegal discrimination.
New Haven used examinations to determine fire department promotions, which resulted in their having a racially disparate impact. Under the tests, several white firefighters would have received a promotion, but none of the black firefighters scored high enough to be considered for the positions. New Haven officials feared the test was flawed and would open themselves to a discrimination lawsuit. To avoid such a lawsuit, the city threw out the test results, and the white firefighters sued. The arch-conservative 5-4 majority ruled that New Haven had discriminated against them illegally by throwing out the test. The Court ruled that an employer in New Haven’s position must demonstrate a strong basis in evidence that, had it not taken the action, it would have been liable under the disparate-impact statute; in this case, the majority ruled, there was no such basis. The dissent criticized the majority for acting as if the only reason the city threw out the test results was that all the qualifying candidates were white, while ignoring real flaws with the test and the existence of better and less racially skewed tests used by other cities.
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1 (2007) struck down the voluntary integration plans of two public school districts seeking to promote racial diversity.
The Roberts Court invalidated school integration plans voluntarily adopted by public school districts in Seattle, WA and Louisville, KY. The plans, which took students’ race into account in assigning certain students to particular schools in order to achieve racially integrated schools, were struck down as violating the Equal Protection Clause. Applying “strict scrutiny,” the five conservatives agreed that the plans were not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, but the five were split among themselves. Four of them (the five minus Kennedy) wrote that the school districts’ goal of racial diversity is not only not compelling, it is not even legitimate. In contrast, Kennedy wrote that the goal is compelling, but that directly looking at the race of individual students was not a sufficiently narrowly tailored way to meet that goal. He suggested that schools could constitutionally use race as a factor in ways that did not depend on an individual student’s race (such as by drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the racial demographics of neighborhoods). This leaves school districts with limited ability to seek racial diversity in indirect ways, while the Court is only one vote away from declaring public school diversity an illegitimate goal.
Gross v. FBL Financial Services (2009) made it harder for a victim of illegal age discrimination to win in court.
Sometimes an employer makes a negative decision toward an employee with mixed motives, both legitimate and illegitimate. The conservative 5-4 majority ruled that under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, an aggrieved worker must prove that age is the key factor in an employment decision, not just that age played a role in the decision. So even if age was a motivating factor, that alone is not enough to constitute illegal age discrimination. This is a harder standard to meet than in mixed motive cases for sex or racial discrimination filed under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even though the relevant statutory language is the same.
Knox v. SEIU (2012) crafted a new constitutional rule on an issue not even discussed by the parties in order to de-fund public sector unions.
This case involved a public sector union in California, a state which prevents “free riders” by requiring government employees protected by a union to pay union dues. Under a 1986 precedent, public sector unions must annually send out a notice of anticipated expenses for the upcoming year and give non-members a chance to opt out of that portion of dues that would cover political activities not directly germane to the union's duties as an agent for collective bargaining. In this case, the question was whether a union had to send out an additional “opt-out” notice when it instituted a special mid-year dues increase to cover political activities relating to a ballot initiative. Seven Justices agreed that this was required. However, the five far-right Justices went much farther and addressed an issue that had never been raised and which the union therefore had never had a chance to discuss: They ruled that the opt-out system substantially impinges upon the First Amendment right of nonmembers, so when there is special assessment or dues increase, the union cannot collect any additional dues from non-members unless they affirmatively opt in. This decision also strongly undermined the viability of the 1986 opt-out precedent and adds to the right-wing efforts to defund unions.
Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn (2011) let states send taxpayer money to religious schools.
This case barred taxpayers from challenging tuition tax credits that funnel taxpayer money to religious schools. States are constitutionally prohibited from directly supporting religious education, so Arizona set up a program where taxpayers get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for money they give to "school tuition organizations" (STOs), nonprofit organizations that award private school scholarships to children. Many of the STO awards actually require parents to send their children to religious schools as a condition of receipt. So money that is owed in taxes is instead funneled to a religious STO to pay for someone's religious education. The 5-4 majority said there is no government spending here at all, so taxpayers have no standing to challenge this money-laundering scheme under the Establishment Clause.
AT&T Mobility v. Conception (2011) empowered large corporations to cheat their customers in violation of state consumer protection laws.
AT&T allegedly scammed thousands of customers by offering a "free" second phone, then charging them for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the phone. A California customer filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all the scam victims, most of whom likely had not even noticed the small added amount to their bill. However, AT&T had made consumers sign a service contract where they agreed to resolve claims against the company through arbitration, rather than the courts, and not to participate in any class action. California consumer protection law makes such contracts unenforceable, since class action lawsuits are often the most effective way to discourage and punish corporate scams that are designed to cheat large numbers of customers of small amounts of money apiece without their knowledge. So aggrieved consumers in California should have been able to file a class action lawsuit. But the 5-4 right-wing majority ruled that a federal law making arbitration agreements enforceable in federal courts pre-empts state consumer protections laws, so the “arbitration and no class action” provision of the contract must be enforced.
Gonzales v. Carhart (2007) upheld a federal ban on a vaguely defined abortion procedure, despite the absence of an exception in the law to protect a woman's health.
The Roberts Court upheld the federal “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act” of 2003 despite the absence of an exception for the woman’s health, and even though it had struck down a virtually identical state law in 2000 as imposing an undue burden on women seeking an abortion. But George W. Bush’s replacement of Justice O’Connor with Justice Alito made the outcome different this time. The Court found that the government had an interest in “protecting the integrity and ethics” of the medical profession, and this method of abortion required regulation because it implicated additional ethical and moral concerns that justify a special prohibition. The Court said restrictions on abortion could be justified by the government’s interest in protecting a woman from the psychological consequences of having an abortion, especially by this method. As the dissent observed, this case severely weakened Court precedents ruling that government may not place an “undue burden” on the right to abortion.
Chamber of Commerce of the US v. Whiting (2011) upheld Arizona’s “death penalty” for companies hiring undocumented immigrants.
Arizona adopted a law in 2007 punishing employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens by suspending or revoking most of their state licenses. The Chamber of Commerce argued that the law was preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). IRCA prohibits the hiring of undocumented aliens and sets forth procedures employers must follow before hiring someone and the sanctions they will incur for violating the law. It expressly preempts local and state laws creating sanctions, other than through licensing and similar laws. The majority upheld Arizona’s law defining “licensing” so broadly as to even include a company’s articles of incorporation. The Court also upheld Arizona's requiring employers to use the federal E-Verify database to confirm that a person is legally authorized to work, even though federal law makes its use voluntary.
Florence v. Board of Freeholders (2012) upheld strip searches for people arrested for minor infractions.
A New Jersey government database incorrectly stated that Albert Florence had failed to pay an old fine. When he was in a car that was pulled over by a state trooper, the trooper called up the (inaccurate) records and immediately handcuffed and arrested Florence. He was held in jail for seven days and strip-searched twice. The 5-4 conservative majority said that jails are dangerous places, and courts must defer to correctional officers’ judgment as to whether a strip search is needed to prevent new inmates from putting others’ lives at risk with weapons or contraband hidden in their bodies.
Rapanos v. United States (2006) left the federal government’s ability to protect wetlands in doubt.
This ideologically split 4-4-1 decision, with Kennedy concurring in the judgment with the other four conservatives, left an unclear precedent. At issue was the definition of “the waters of the United States,” which are protected by the Clean Water Act. The four conservative Justices (minus Kennedy) would have adopted a restrictive reading, stripping the federal government of authority to protect vast areas of wetlands it has long protected. The four moderates would have deferred to the Corp of Engineers’ decades-long inclusion of wetlands adjacent to tributaries of traditionally navigable waters; these preserve the quality of the country’s waters by, among other things, providing habitat for aquatic animals, keeping excessive sediment and toxic pollutants out of adjacent waters, and reducing downstream flooding by absorbing water at times of high flow. Kennedy adopted neither position, but was more restrictive than the moderates. He argued a wetland must have a significant nexus to a body of water that is actually navigable or that could reasonably be so made. While lower courts have interpreted the case different ways, the identity of the next Justice could change the balance.
B. 5-4 Roberts Court Cases Where the Right Wing Lost
Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (2007): The Court ruled that the Clean Air Act empowered the EPA to address global warming.
The Bush-era EPA had rejected a petition that it regulate emission of greenhouse gases under the mandate of the Clean Air Act. The EPA denied the petition, saying (1) the Clean Air Act didn’t authorize it to address global climate change, and (2) regardless, it would have been unwise to do so because the science was uncertain. A 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the CAA, which gives EPA the needed authority. Therefore, the EPA can avoid regulating only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do. The four conservatives would have ruled that EPA has the discretion not to regulate greenhouse gases.
Caperton v. Massey Coal (2009): The Court ruled that the Constitution can prohibit an elected state judge from presiding over a case involving someone who spent millions of dollars to get him into office.
When Brent Benjamin was running to be a WV Supreme Court justice, Massey Coal was planning to appeal an important case coming before the court. Massey’s CEO spent $3 million to help Benjamin get elected. His contributions were vastly more than the total amount spent by all of Benjamin’s other supporters, and they dwarfed the amount spent by the judge's campaign committee. When it came time to hear the case, Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself. A 5-4 Supreme Court ruled this extreme case created such a probability of bias that it violated litigants’ Due Process rights. Voting with the moderates, Justice Kennedy wrote: “Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when – without the consent of the other parties – a man chooses the judge in his own cause.” The remaining four arch-conservatives found no constitutional violation and even questioned the relevance of the $3 million in independent expenditures, since Benjamin had no control over how they were spent.
Boumediene v. Bush (2008): Prisoners at Guantánamo have the constitutional right to contest their imprisonment in federal court.
This case involving aliens at Guantánamo was a critical check to President Bush’s assertion of nearly unbridled authority under the “War on Terror.” Under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, prisoners at Guantánamo (who Bush had designated as “enemy combatants”) could not go to federal court to contest the legality of their imprisonment (i.e., they had no habeas corpus rights). A 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled they are not barred from seeking the writ of habeas corpus simply because they have been designated as enemy combatants or because of they are located on Guantánamo rather than a place where the U.S. has legal sovereignty. The government must provide the prisoners with a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that they are being held contrary to law, and the habeas court must have the power to order the conditional release of an individual unlawfully detained. The dissenters – the conservatives minus Kennedy – wrote that aliens detained abroad by U.S. forces have no constitutional habeas rights at all.