Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.'s original plan for the current Supreme Court term was to front-load arguments at the beginning last fall, leaving fewer cases to be argued and decided this spring. The goal was to alleviate the workload crunch in May and June before adjournment. It didn't quite work out that way. Ten cases are set for argument in late April, and as John Payton put it Thursday, four of them are "very significant civil rights cases" involving issues where discrimination persists: voting rights, employment, access to home mortgages and education. So much for an easy spring at the Supreme Court.
Payton is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and he came to Washington, D.C., to brief reporters on that array of civil rights cases. Leading off is Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, a frontal challenge to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, which Payton described as "the most important and transformative civil rights act in our history." A local district is seeking to get out from under the act's Section 5 pre-clearance requirements. If it isn't allowed to do so, the district argues the law is unconstitutional. "It's the most important case nobody has heard of," said Debo Adegbile, the LDF's litigation director, who successfully defended the law before a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The case will be argued April 29, and could mark new Solicitor General Elena Kagan's debut at the high court lectern. Adegbile said the government has asked for divided argument time, meaning one of several intervenors including LDF could share the half-hour with Kagan or whomever else she assigns to defend the law.
On April 22 an important employment rights case, Ricci v. DeStefano, will be argued. When a test was given to New Haven firefighters to find those qualified for promotion in 2003, none of the 27 African-Americans who took the test qualified. The city pulled back the test, and some of the whites who qualified under the test sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Discrimination suits have been filed against fire departments in "nearly every city" over the decades, Payton said, but the impact of the Ricci case will be felt well beyond firehouses.
Also the civil rights docket is Cuomo v. Clearing House Association, which tests whether the comptroller of the currency has sole power to investigate national banks to enforce fair housing and anti-discrimination lending laws. Civil rights groups are joining New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in urging that states have concurrent powers to enforce state laws in this area, especially since federal enforcement has been weak. The case, which will be argued April 28, is the only one of the four in which the federal government is on the other side of the LDF.
Finally, on April 20 the Court will hear Horne v. Flores, in which Arizona claims that its compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act relieves the state from having to take additional steps to overcome educational barriers for non-English speaking students under a 2000 court order. The LDF argues the state has not met its obligations.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.