Civil Rights and Discrimination: U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

Following is a list of U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving civil rights and discrimination.

  • Dred Scott v. Sanford (1856) | (Case Background)
    A major precursor to the Civil War, this controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision denied citizenship and basic rights to all blacks — whether slave 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)
    The Court in this case upheld the conviction of an American of Japanese descent, who had been prosecuted for remaining in California after a 1942 presidential order designating much of the west coast a “military area”, and requiring relocation of most Japanese-Americans from California (among other west coast states)
  • 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, excluding members of other races.
  • Bailey v. Patterson (1962)
    The Court in this case prohibited racial segregation of interstate and intrastate transportation facilities.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
    In this case, the Court found that criminal defense attorneys must be provided for indigent criminal defendants.
  • Loving v. Virginia (1967)
    This decision holds that state laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage are unconstitutional.
  • Jones v. Mayer Co. (1968)
    The Court held in this case that federal law bars all racial discrimination (private or public), in sale or rental of property.
  • Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971)
    In this case, 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 (1973)
    The Court found that a city school system’s failure to provide English language instruction to students of Chinese ancestry amounted to unlawful discrimination.
  • Roe v. Wade (1973)
    In this landmark case, the Court decided that a woman’s right to abortion is part of the constitutional right to privacy.
  • Cleveland Bd. of Ed. v. LaFleur (1974)
    Found that Ohio public school mandatory maternity leave rules for pregnant teachers violate constitutional guarantees of due process.
  • Batson v. Kentucky (1986)
    This decision holds that a state denies an African-American defendant equal protection when it puts him on trial before a jury from which members of his race have been purposefully excluded.
  • Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)
    The Court holds that a Georgia statute criminalizing same-sex sodomy is constitutional.
  • Johnson v. Transportation Agency (1987)
    The Court decides that a county transportation agency appropriately took into account an employee’s sex as one factor in determining whether she should be promoted.
  • Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Serv., Inc. (1987)
    In this case, 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.
  • Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992)
    The Court decided that an award of money damages is possible in a case brought to enforce Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, alleging sexual harassment and abuse by a teacher.
  • Romer v. Evans (1996)
    In this case, the Court finds that an amendment to Colorado’s constitution, which sought to preclude legal protection of homosexuals’ rights, is unconstitutional.
  • Bragdon v. Abbott (1998)
    The Court holds that HIV infection qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth (1998)
    Holding that an employee who refuses unwelcome and threatening sexual advances of a supervisor (but suffers no real job consequences) may 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 decides that an employer may be liable for sexual discrimination caused by a supervisor, but liability depends on the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct, as well as the reasonableness of the plaintiff victim’s conduct.
  • Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (1999)
    In this case, the Court explains how to determine whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
    The Court holds that a Texas statute criminalizing same-sex conduct is unconstitutional.
  • Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
    In this case, the Court finds that a law school’s limited “affirmative action” use of race in admissions is constitutional.

Court of Appeals Upholds PPACA Individual Mandate

The Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-1 in finding the minimum coverage provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) constitutional. The minimum coverage provision or individual mandate requires nearly all Americans to purchase minimum health insurance coverage by 2014 or face financial penalties.

In Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, No. 10-2388 (6th Cir. Jun. 29 2011), the Court found “that the minimum coverage provision is a valid exercise of legislative power by Congress under the Commerce Clause.”

Two more PPACA cases are pending before the federal court of appeals in Virginia and Atlanta. Those courts heard oral arguments in May and June. The Sixth Circuit’s opinion upheld the district court ruling, which also held the law constitutional.

To read the case:

Appeals Court Overturns Stem Cell Ban

On April 29th, in Sherley v. Sebelius, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Cir., overturned the injunction imposed by the district court, which had blocked the implementation of the 2009 NIH Guidelines on finding research using human embryonic stem cells. 74 Fed. Reg. 32170(2009). The Guidelines, in turn, had been formulated to implement President Obama’s executive order 13505 that lifted President Bush’s executive order banning such funding. The suit, brought by two researchers working with adult stem cells, argued that the Guidelines were in conflict with the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Act, which banned funding for both research that would create human embryos for research purposes or would destroy human embryos. For more background, see this post from Sept. 1, 2010.

The Court found that preliminary injunction was improperly granted “because Dickey-Wicker is ambiguous and the NIH seems reasonably to have concluded that, although [D-W] bars funding for the destructive act of deriving an ESC from an embryo, it does not prohibit funding a research project in which an ESC will be used.”  In other words, if some other unfunded entity disassembles an unwanted embryo obtained with informed consent of the donor from an in vitro fertilization clinic and provides the ESCs to a researcher, the researcher can obtain federal funding to study them. Since establishing the Guidelines, the NIH has approved additional ESC lines for federal funding. While this is good news for researchers working with embryonic stem cell lines approved under the NIH Guidelines, the underlying suit will continue to threaten the administration’s more liberal view of stem cell research.

Apparently Pigs Can Fly: Senate Passes Historic Patent Reform Bill

Just when most believed it couldn’t be done, the United States Senate voted yesterday, in an overwhelming show of bipartisan support, to approve Senate Bill S. 23(opens in a new window) (titled the “America Invents Act”). If passed by the House of Representatives, this would be the most comprehensive change to U.S. patent law since Congress passed the 1952 Patent Act over half-a-century ago. Although the idea of patent reform is certainly not uncommon and has been raised with some vigor in 2005, 2007, and 2009, the Senate’s passage of Senate Bill S. 23 marks a significant milestone in the seemingly endless quest for patent reform.

Although the America Invents Act languished for more than a week through a series of debates and suffered multiple amendments, the final version of the bill boasted bipartisan backing from all but five senators. In the words of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the bill strikes the “proper balance for America—for our economy, for our inventors, for our consumers.” Only Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; James Risch, R-Idaho; and John Ensign, R-Nev. voted against the legislation.

The White House strongly supports the legislation and has called it a:

“fair, balanced and necessary effort to improve patent quality, enable greater work sharing between the [United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)] and other countries, improve service to patent applicants and the public at the USPTO and offer productive alternatives to costly and complex litigation.”

And Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama applauded the passage of S.23 saying that he is “pleased that, on a bipartisan basis, the Senate has passed the most significant patent reform in over half a century.” Indeed, the sweeping legislation addresses rising public and industry concerns regarding how the USPTO reviews, grants, and hears challenges on patents.  Specifically, S. 23 includes the following measures:

  • Transition from a first-to-invent system to a first-to-file system for determining priority of multiple inventors to the same or similar inventions (Section 2);
  • Prioritization of reviews for certain patents deemed critical to U.S. economic development (Section 23);
  • Establishment of a transitional program to review granted business-method patents in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bilski v. Kappos (Section 18);
  • Formation of a new “first-window” post-grant, patent-opposition system with a shorter timeframe but broader jurisdiction than the current reexamination procedure (Section 5);
  • Establishment of procedures for third parties to submit for consideration and inclusion in the record of a patent application, any patent, published patent, or other printed publication of potential relevance to the examination of the application (Section 7);
  • Creation of a small-business ombudsman at the USPTO (Section 22);
  • Modification of current bans on tax patents to allow patents for certain types of tax-return filing software (Section 14);
  • Amendments to 35 U.S.C. § 292 restricting the availability of false-marking damages to the federal government and those persons who have suffered a competitive injury as a result of false patent marking (Section 2);
  • Requirement that the USPTO disclose the amount of time it takes to conduct inter partes and post-grant reviews (Section 5);
  • Provision allowing the USPTO to set its own fees (Section 9);
  • Elimination of fee diversion from the USPTO to the U.S. general treasury (Section 20);
  • Set new fees for applicants that select not to use electronic filing methods (Section 9); and
  • Establishment of three or more USPTO satellite offices (Section 21).

The senate bill gained support as it moved towards passage last week, especially after the Senate decided to strike litigation-related provisions pertaining to rules for determining damages, willfulness, and venue transfer in district court infringement proceedings. According to the American Intellectual Properly Law Association President David Hill, “Senate passage of S. 23 is very encouraging. . . . We are hopeful that patent reform will soon become a reality.”

Focus now shifts to the House of Representatives. Debate is expected to center on the transition to a first-inventor-to-file system of determining patent ownership and the formation of a new post-grant review procedure to challenge patent validity in the nine-month period after issuance.  Amendments to these provisions in the Senate were withdrawn early in the floor debate. In addition, S. 23 differs substantially from the patent-reform bill most recently passed by the House in September 2007. Unlike S. 23, House Bill H.R. 1908(opens in a new window) (titled the “Patent Reform Act of 2007“) centered primarily on litigation reform.

The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet has scheduled hearings for March 9 and 10, which presumably will concentrate on patent reform. Given the present high priority on legislation relating to the administration’s budget for fiscal years 2011-2012, however, it is unclear what, if any, priority the House will place on patent reform. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the House currently intends to adopt the Senate bill in whole cloth or advance its own version of patent reform. Although the Subcommittee’s Chairman, Lamar S. Smith, R-Tex., confirmed on February 11 that he is developing a House version of the bill, Senator Leahy (S. 23’s primary sponsor) suggested during Senate floor debate that he worked with Smith to incorporate the House’s ideas into the Senate bill.

Although its too early to say whether patent reform will become a reality, one thing is certain: it’s been a long time since patent reform has come this far. We will be watching the House with baited breath and will keep you informed as to any further progress towards patent reform. If the House bill incorporates similar reform, air traffic controllers may indeed report sightings of airborne porcine.