As the decade closed, advocates on either side of gender and race issues could be forgiven for feeling a bit schizophrenic. During the past 10 years, the courts weighed in on a series of exceptionally high-profile social cases — with rulings that left both sides unsatisfied.
Perhaps the biggest liberal win was Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, upheld the affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan while suggesting that such policies could one day be struck down. “I think the only obvious upside in this last decade, I’d say, would be” Grutter, said John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.In contrast, this year, the Court handed down a decision allowing a local utility district in Texas to seek relief from requirements under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, opening the door for other jurisdictions. Justices also ruled for white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who said they were denied promotions because of their race.
Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, said it hasn’t been a good decade overall for women’s rights in the courts. For instance, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision, limited the window to file pay-discrimination claims. The ruling set off a public furor and Congress moved to change the law. Greenberger said the case reinforced the need for Congress to be clear in its intent while highlighting “the potential of legislative effort to overcome the harm of the Supreme Court decision.” She said one bright spot was the Court’s 2005 decision in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education. That ruling allows retaliation claims to be filed under Title IX, which also prohibits gender discrimination in school sports.
The 2005 retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor marked a shift in the Court’s balance, especially on abortion. Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, pointed to the Court’s 2007 decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, when the Court upheld a federal ban on a controversial abortion procedure in a 5-4 vote, as showing the impact of O’Connor’s departure.Northup said the Carhart decision “left us with the floodgates opening to increasing restrictions at the state level,” and the center has filed cases challenging state restrictions this year in Oklahoma, Alaska, Arizona and North Dakota.
— Carrie Levine