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Civil Rights: US Supreme Court Decisions

From race and gender discrimination to sexual orientation discrimination and struggles over disability rights, civil rights cases are a significant area of law that the U.S. Supreme Court has encountered on many occasions.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the United States. Cases begin in a lower court, often a district court. They are then appealed to a court of appeals. Only rarely do they move all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for oral argument and judicial review. Below is a list of U.S. Supreme Court cases involving civil rights and discrimination.

Racial Discrimination

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856): A major precursor to the Civil War, this controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision denied citizenship and basic rights to all black people. This was true whether a black person was enslaved or free.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): This decision allowed the use of "separate but equal" racially segregated accommodations and facilities.
  • Korematsu v. U.S. (1944): This case upheld the conviction of an American of Japanese descent. The defendant had been prosecuted for remaining in California after a 1942 presidential order designating much of the West Coast a "military area" and requiring the relocation of most Japanese Americans from California to detention camps.
  • Shelley v. Kraemer (1948): This decision held that "racially restrictive covenants" in property deeds are unenforceable. In this case, the "covenants" were terms or obligations in property deeds that limited property rights to Caucasians. The covenants excluded members of other races.
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): In this landmark case during the Civil Rights Movement, the court prohibited racial segregation in public schools.
  • Brown v. Board of Education II (1955): This public education decision quickened the process for implementing the anti-segregation orders issued in Brown I.
  • Bailey v. Patterson (1962): The court prohibited racial segregation of interstate and intrastate transportation facilities.
  • Loving v. Virginia (1967): This decision held that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage are unconstitutional.
  • Jones v. Mayer Co. (1968): The Supreme Court determined that federal law bars all racial discrimination (private or public) in the sale or rental of property.
  • Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971): The court decided that certain education requirements and intelligence tests used as conditions of employment acted to exclude African American job applicants, did not relate to job performance, and were prohibited.
  • Lau v. Nichols (1974): The court found that a city school district's failure to provide English language instruction to students of Chinese ancestry amounted to unlawful discrimination.
  • Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. (1977): The Supreme Court declared that proof of racially discriminatory intent is required to support a claim that race was a motivating factor in a land zoning decision.
  • University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978): The court ruled that a public university may take race into account as the sole factor in admissions decisions.
  • Batson v. Kentucky (1986): The court held that a state denied an African American defendant equal protection when it put him on trial before a jury from which members of his race were purposefully excluded.
  • Grutter v. Bollinger (2003): The court found that a law school's limited "affirmative action" use of race in admissions was constitutional.

Gender (Sex) Discrimination

  • Roe v. Wade (1973): In this landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman's right to abortion was part of the constitutional right to privacy.
  • Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur (1974): The court found that Ohio public schools' mandatory maternity leave rules for pregnant teachers violate constitutional guarantees of due process.
  • Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986): The court found that a claim of "hostile environment" sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that may be brought in a complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Johnson v. Transportation Agency (1987): The court decided that a county transportation agency appropriately took into account an employee's sex as one factor in determining whether she should be promoted.
  • Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992): The court held that sex discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual harassment can form the basis for a valid claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc. (1998): The court held that sex discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual harassment could form the basis for a valid claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth (1998): The court held that an employee who refuses unwelcome and threatening sexual advances of a supervisor (but suffers no real job consequences) can recover against the employer without showing the employer is at fault for the supervisor's actions.
  • Faragher v. City of Boca Raton (1998): The court decided that an employer may be liable for sexual discrimination caused by a supervisor. However, it ruled that liability depends on the reasonableness of the employer's conduct, as well as the reasonableness of the plaintiff victim's conduct.

Gay and Lesbian Rights and Sexual Orientation Discrimination

  • Bowers v. Hardwick (1986): This Supreme Court ruling held that a Georgia statute criminalizing same-sex sodomy was constitutional.
  • Romer v. Evans (1996): The court found that an amendment to Colorado's constitution that sought to preclude legal protection of gay rights was unconstitutional.
  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003): The court held that a Texas statute criminalizing same-sex conduct was unconstitutional.
  • Obergefell v. Hodges (2015): The court held that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to get married. It ruled that state laws may not abridge that right.

Religious Freedoms

  • Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004): The court declared that a grade school student's father couldn't challenge the school's pledge of allegiance policy as a violation of the child's religious freedom.

Disability Discrimination

Contact a Legal Professional to Protect Your Civil Rights

The United States Supreme Court has decided many civil rights cases. Take action if you have concerns about possible civil rights violations in your life. You have constitutional rights. These include the right to free speech under the First Amendment, due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, and rights under the equal protection clause. Congress has passed laws to protect your rights. It is the job of state governments and the federal government to enforce those rights.

Laws vary from state to state. Alabama or Arizona laws may differ greatly from those in Kansas, Louisiana, or New York. Contact a civil rights attorney near you to learn more about your state's judiciary system and issues like voting rights.

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