Saturday was the 70th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination by defense contractors. Last week, Congressman Bobby Scott hosted a press conference and briefing in honor of the anniversary of this event, which marked the first time a U.S. president had acted to combat discrimination by private employers who were using federal taxpayer money. Future presidents expanded on President Roosevelt’s action and added to its protections.
However, this was more than just a celebratory event of an important civil rights milestone: it was a call to action to correct an erosion of equal employment opportunity law that has been in effect since 2002. That’s when President Bush signed an Executive Order that made discrimination on the basis of religion by faith-based organizations using federal taxpayer money legal. In so doing, he reversed our nation’s continuous expansion of the promise of equal protection and opened a gaping hole in our nation’s civil rights protections. Religious entities had always been able to discriminate based on religion using their own money, but never to use taxpayer money to do so.
All the panelists were united in asking President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise of restoring the law. On the panel were: Congressman Bobby Scott (convener of the event); Congressman Jerrold Nadler; Professor Eric Arnesen (professor of history at George Washington University and biographer of civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, whose activism prompted FDR’s executive order); Rabbi David Saperstein (Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and also a board member of our affiliated People For the American Way Foundation); Barbara Arnwine (Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law); Hilary Shelton (Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau); and Rev. Dr. Paul L. Brown, Sr. (Pastor of Miles Memorial CME Church and member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action).
Among other things, speakers discussed how employment discrimination harms the victims and society as a whole; warned that religion can easily be used as a proxy for race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; condemned discrimination paid for by the tax dollars of its victims; asked why the religion of someone ladling out soup for the hungry should matter; and warned of the dangerous consequences to churches that want to retain federal funding they have become dependent on. As the last speaker, Rev. Dr. Brown opened a window into his daily work helping the hungry and the homeless, the “least and the lost,” and strongly condemned federally funded discrimination.
When he was running for President, then-Senator Obama promised to reverse President Bush’s policy, but he has yet to do so. What better time than the anniversary of the issuance of Executive Order 8802 for President Obama to put our nation back on the right road and restore through executive order the prohibition against federally funded discrimination? Yesterday, People For the American Way and African American Ministers In Action joined more than 50 other civil rights and religious organizations asking him to do just that.
In yet another decision highlighting the Roberts Court's tendency to favor corporations over individual citizens, the Supreme Court on Monday made it more difficult for employees and consumers challenging their contracts to seek justice in court.
In Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, Antonio Jackson filed suit in a Nevada federal district court against his employer, Rent-A-Center, claiming that he had suffered racial discrimination and retaliation. Rent-A-Center tried to dismiss the lawsuit and force Jackson to move the dispute to arbitration, as was required by Jackson’s employment contract. The district court agreed with the company, but the Ninth Circuit court reversed, holding that when a person opposing arbitration claims that he or she could not have meaningfully consented to the agreement, the question of whether the original contract was fair must be decided by a court.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit's ruling, saying that Mr. Jackson failed to specifically challenge the arbitration provision in the agreement that requires challenges to the validity of the entire agreement to also be decided by an arbitrator. Previously, if an employee challenged certain aspects of a contract that included a binding arbitration clause but not necessarily the arbitration clause itself, the dispute would go to the arbitrators. However, the Court's decision expanded upon that to hold that even if an employee argues that the entire contract – including the arbitration clause – was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable, that person is still denied access to the courts unless he specifically and separately challenged the arbitration clause. In other words, arguing that the entire contract is illegitimate is not enough.
Treated as contracts, arbitration clauses waive one’s rights to go to court, meaning that any disputes must instead be settled through private arbitration. Often built into the fine print of a contract, these clauses are very common in the consumer context and usually there is little choice but to sign or not sign the contract. Most people at some point or another will become bound to an agreement with an arbitration clause, perhaps as part of a cell phone contract, a health insurance plan, or an employment contract. Although they are ostensibly for the benefit of both parties, they are primarily drafted to protect companies from litigation, as it is often too expensive for a claimant to even initiate the arbitration proceedings, much less pay the arbitrator’s hourly fees. In a telling signal of what a majority of the Court today thinks about these practical obstacles for ordinary Americans, Justice Scalia, in oral arguments, dismissed people who sign arbitration agreements as “stupid.”
Forced arbitration is an increasing problem as these clauses become standard parts of everyday contracts, but they are particularly troubling in civil rights cases such as this one. Mr. Jackson’s claim that his employer discriminated against him based on his race was brought under section 1981 of the Civil Rights Acts – legislation that was passed specifically to ensure that victims of such discrimination would have access to the federal courts. Instead, because Mr. Jackson signed an employment agreement - an agreement that he had little choice but to sign if he wanted the job - he is now precluded from asserting a violation of those rights and seeking justice in court.
As confirmed in Justice Stevens’ dissent, neither party even asked the Court for such a heightened standard of pleading, showing how once again, the Roberts Court is going out of its way to protect corporations and prevent real citizens - workers and consumers - from being able to access the federal courts.
In the two days since Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul restated his long-held opposition to the portions of 1964’s Civil Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination by private businesses, members of his party have been keeping their distance and tripping over themselves in the rush to declare their allegiance to the landmark civil rights law.
But, as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus points out, there was a time not long ago when Republican Senators were faced with someone with views very similar to Paul’s–and, instead of distancing themselves from him, tried to put him on the Supreme Court.
Rand Paul and Robert Bork, Marcus writes, “are ideological soul mates.”
For those whose perspective on the rejected Bork nomination is that it was such a skewed pummeling that it led to the creation of a new verb -- Borking -- here’s a reminder. Writing in The New Republic in 1963 about the proposed civil rights act, Bork inveighed against a principle of "unsurpassed ugliness” -- not of racism, mind you, but of the notion of compelling private property owners to stop discriminating. Sound familiar? The next year, Bork lit into the proposed bans on discrimination in both employment and public accommodations, saying they would “compel association where it is not desired,” and citing “serious constitutional problems” with the measure.
Bork renounced those views publicly in 1973, during his nomination for solicitor general. Paul’s about-face took less than 24 hours.
It might seem unfair to bring up a 23-year-old nomination battle in the debate over today’s policies, but some in the Republican Party have done just that, using Bork’s Senate defeat as a recurring Supreme Court talking point.
This week, McConnell weighed in on the Paul brouhaha, issuing a statement extolling the “landmark achievement” of the Civil Rights Act.
If Republicans want to keep on bringing up the Bork nomination, they should spend some time remembering why Bork met with such an unfriendly reception.
For a reminder, check out People For’s 1987 TV Ad on Bork, narrated by Gregory Peck:
This morning the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Eric Holder, a case involving a small municipal district in Austin, Texas seeking to invalidate a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - one of the most important civil rights laws in American history.
With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Congress finally acted to prevent discriminatory tactics designed to prevent minorities from exercising their fundamental right to vote. Section 5, in particular, is the centerpiece of the Act, and requires certain covered jurisdictions where voting discrimination has been the most flagrant to seek a preclearance from the Justice Department or a three-judge panel of the federal court in DC for any voting related changes. According to the statute, preclearance will be given as long as the proposed change does not have the purpose or the effect of denying or infringing on the right to vote because of one’s race or color.
In this case, the party seeking to invalidate Section 5 is a municipal utility district in Travis County, Texas, that conducts elections to select the members of its board of directors. Because the State of Texas is a covered jurisdiction, the district is subject to the preclearance requirements of Section 5, and sought relief under the Act’s bailout provision in federal court in the days following the reauthorization of the Act in 2006. Alternatively, the utility district sought to invalidate the provision if it could not bailout from its requirements. It failed on both counts in the courts below.
Today’s arguments confirm that Justice Kennedy again holds the deciding vote on whether the Court will weaken or invalidate a provision upheld by the very same Court four times in the past.
To those who argue that Section 5 is no longer needed because racial discrimination no longer exists, as evidenced by the election of the country’s first African American president, look at the facts. Because of Section 5’s sunset provisions, Congress was required to re-examine whether the statute is needed and last conducted an examination of this type in 2006. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a combined 21 hearings over 10 months and received testimony from over 90 witnesses, including state and federal officials, experts and private citizens. And although they concluded that significant progress had been made, they recognized that “[d]iscrimination today is more subtle than the visible methods used in 1965” and concluded that discrimination continues to result in “a diminishing of the minority community’s ability to fully participate in the electoral process and to elect their preferred candidates of choice.” Congress voted 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate that, among other things, Section 5 was still necessary.
We hope that Justice Kennedy will remember the extensive record finding Congress performed in 2006 and remember his words earlier this year when he wrote in Bartlett v. Strickland, “Still, racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions. . .”
Deborah Liu is General Counsel to People For the American Way, which is a defendant-intervenor in the case.
Twenty four hours after thousands celebrated “Bloody Sunday” earlier this week – a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery where civil rights marchers including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) were attacked and brutally beaten by Alabama state and local police, but ultimately led to the historic passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the Supreme Court undermined some of the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act.
I was troubled, in particular by this reference in a NY Times article about Richard Pildes, an expert whose views the Justices relied on in Mondays’ decision, who, according to the Times, “said that current events, including the fact that both major political parties are led by African-Americans, had complicated the legal landscape, creating ‘tremendous pressure on a statute that was primarily structured for an earlier era in which blacks were completely excluded from office.’ “
There’s no disputing the fact that much progress has been made, but even today, we’re a far cry from the post-racial world that MLK described in his famous I Have a Dream speech. To it's credit, even the Supreme Court recognized that racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. This issue is not simply about having an African American President or leader in the Republican Party. This is a larger issue of opportunity for all citizens and one federal election has not summarily changed the reality existing in this country still. There’s no African American representing an overwhelmingly white district in the House, and no African American governors representing a Southern state (there’s only been one in history – Douglas Wilder of Virginia).
I recognize that there’s been much progress, but there’s more work to be done and vital protections such as those in the VRA are still necessary.
As expected, the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One (NAMUDNO), a public utility district in Travis County, Tex., filed a direct appeal yesterday with the Supreme Court from a unanimous ruling last May by a three-judge federal district court rejecting NAMUDNO's claims that it is exempt from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and, in the alternative, that Section 5 is unconstitutional.
People For and a number of other parties intervened as defendants in the district court in order to help defend the constitutionality of Section 5. Section 5 of the VRA requires all or part of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to have their voting procedures pre-approved, or "pre-cleared," by the Department of Justice or a three-judge federal district court in Washington before they can be changed.