Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Supreme Court's 2002-2003 Term


The Supreme Court’s 2002-2003 Term underlined the importance of future nominations to the Court. The justices remain narrowly divided on a number of key issues concerning civil and constitutional rights, and came within one or two votes of adopting extreme positions advanced by Justices Thomas and Scalia in several important cases. These included the Court’s 5-4 decisions upholding affirmative action and a key method used to finance legal aid for the poor, as well as 6-3 rulings upholding the Family and Medical Leave Act as applied to state employees and striking down Texas’ anti-gay sodomy law.

Although these decisions represented important victories, overall the Court reached mixed results in 2002-03 on civil rights and civil liberties. It narrowly approved affirmative action as used in law school admissions at the University of Michigan, but struck down the University’s undergraduate admissions affirmative action plan. The Court upheld a restrictive federal law mandating filters on the Internet in public libraries, but did so only based on the understanding that adults can “opt out” of mandatory filtering. It issued important decisions protecting gays and lesbians and preventing job discrimination victims from facing difficult barriers in proving their cases, but also limited the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This report summarizes the Court’s key decisions this term on civil rights, civil liberties, and other non-criminal law subjects in our Courting Disaster report, an updated version of which will be released during the week of June 30.

Looking ahead to 2003-04, the Court is already scheduled to hear a number of important and controversial cases. These include a challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, a case concerning the validity of a key part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a case that far right advocates are hoping will invalidate state constitutional provisions that provide more protection against religious school voucher plans than the federal Establishment Clause. PFAW Foundation will be participating in a number of these and other cases before the Court next term.

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