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Civil Rights

The 1980s And Beyond

One result of civil rights legislation is AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, which is the effort to enforce race and sex classifications when necessary to correct past discriminatory patterns. The ordering of affirmative action requires employers or labor unions to make concerted efforts to hire minorities who traditionally have been discouraged from seeking employment with them. The basis for affirmative action is that if such efforts are not made, unlawful discrimination will be perpetuated.

Affirmative action and other attempts to end discrimination raise new questions. For example, have efforts to help minorities and women begun to infringe on the rights of individuals outside of those groups, such as white men? Some argue that affirmative action results in reverse discrimination, which is prejudice or bias practiced against a particular person or class of people in order to remedy a pattern of past discrimination against another individual or group of individuals.

Much of the attention on the constitutionality of affirmative action programs has focused upon the federal courts of appeals. The most heated controversy has centered on affirmative action programs in higher education. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hopwood v. Texas,78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996) held that a program at the University of Texas School of Law granting preferences to minorities in admissions decisions was unconstitutional. This case stirred a national debate, and several commentators noted that the percentage of minorities who were admitted to the school dropped markedly after the decision. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the decision to stand when it denied certioari.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified some of the confusion experienced by the lower federal courts with respect to affirmative action programs in higher education. In Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S.___, 123 S. Ct. 2325, ___ L. Ed. 2d ___ (2003), the Court upheld a practice by the law school at the University of Michigan that considered race one of the factors the school considered when admitting students. The ruling upheld the decision in BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA V. BAKKE, 438 U.S. 265, 98 S. Ct. 2733, 57 L. Ed. 2d 750 (1978), a controversial decision that had likewise allowed schools to consider race as a factor in admissions. In a companion case to Grutter, however the Court limited the scope of affirmative action programs of universities when it struck down Michigan's undergraduate admissions policies. Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. ___, 123 S. Ct. 2411, ___ L. Ed. 2d ___ (2003). Unlike the law school's admissions policies at Michigan, the undergraduate admissions department added a certain number of "points" to the application of a racial minority. Because the university added these points automatically without consideration of the individual applicant, the Court held that this policy could not pass constitutional muster.

After President RONALD REAGAN appointed three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court during his two presidential terms between 1981 and 1989, the Court proceeded to render more conservative opinions regarding civil rights. For example, in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 109 S. Ct. 2363, 105 L. Ed. 2d 132 (1989), it addressed the issue of discrimination in the private sector and held that section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 barred only RACIAL DISCRIMINATION in hiring, and thus not racial harassment while on the job. Minority-rights groups were disappointed by the ruling and saw it as part of a general trend toward making civil rights violations more difficult to prove. However, Justice ANTHONY M. KENNEDY, who wrote the Court's opinion, stated, "Neither our words nor our decisions should be interpreted as signaling one inch of retreat from Congress's policy to forbid discrimination in the private, as well as the public, sphere."

Less controversial have been developments in the area of civil rights for handicapped people. In 1990, President GEORGE H. W. BUSH signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 327 [codified in scattered sections of 42, 29, 47 U.S.C.A.] [effective 1992]), which was quickly hailed as the most significant civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA prohibits discrimination against DISABLED PERSONS in employment, public accommodations, transportation, and TELECOMMUNICATIONS. Referred to as the bill of rights for physically and mentally disabled citizens—who were estimated to number 43 million at the time of the act's passage—the act supersedes previous state and local laws and extends protection to any person with a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual."

The act includes many features that are intended to improve living conditions for those with disabilities. For example, employers, providers of public transportation, and private businesses with public accommodation (such as theaters, restaurants, hotels, and banks) must make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled persons. Often such accommodations must include wheelchair access. Similarly, all commuter and intercity trains are required to have at least one car that is handicapped-accessible, and telephone companies must provide relay operators for hearing-impaired individuals who use special telecommunications devices.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 (Pub. L. No. 102-166, 105 Stat. 1071 [codified in scattered sections of 42, 29, 2 U.S.C.A.]) marked another important step in civil rights legislation. The act repudiated several U.S. Supreme Court decisions on civil rights; granted women and disabled persons the right to recover money damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and granted congressional employees the protection of Title VII. Among the high court's decisions that were overturned by the 1991 act was Patterson. Section 101 of the act states that employees may sue for damages experienced through racial discrimination in hiring, promotion, dismissal, and all other terms of employment. The changes in Title VII employee-discrimination cases entitle plaintiffs to jury trials and allow them to recover damages in addition to back pay.

Although many minority groups have made rapid advances toward recognition of their civil rights, one group that continues to struggle is the homosexual community. Similar to ethnic and racial minorities, individuals who identify themselves as homosexual, bisexual, or transsexual have long been subject to disparate treatment from the majority. Although GAY AND LESBIAN RIGHTS groups have made advances toward changing perceptions in society, challenges in the courts have been only marginally successful.

Gay and lesbian rights group claimed a victory in 1996 with the Supreme Court's decision in ROMER V. EVANS, 517 U.S. 620, 116 S. Ct. 1620, 134 L. Ed. 2d 855 (1996). In that case, a constitutional amendment in the state of Colorado prohibited governmental units from passing any statute, regulation, or ordinance purporting to protect the rights of homosexuals or bisexuals. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause because it explicitly denies a single group protection under the law.

Although Romer represented one of the first major victories for gay and lesbian groups, other decisions have been less favorable. In BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA V. DALE, 530 U.S. 640, 120 S. Ct. 2446, 147 L. Ed. 2d 554 (2000), the Court held that the Boy Scouts could properly exclude gay boys from their organization based upon the principle of FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION. Due in large part to their limited success in the courts and legislatures, gay and lesbian advocates have focused much of their attention on changing societal perceptions of homosexual, bisexuals, and other similar minority groups.

Another issue that has arisen in the courts with respect to civil rights is the limitations placed upon SECTION 1983 actions against governmental officials for violations of constitutional rights. For instance, in Board of County Commissioners of Bryan County, Okla. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 117 S. Ct. 12382, 137 L. Ed. 2d 626 (1997), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that a plaintiff cannot recover in an action under section 1983 under a theory of repondeat superior. The plaintiff in the case was injured when a police officer forced her to the ground after a chase. The officer had been hired by his great-uncle, a county sheriff, despite the fact that he had had a number of criminal convictions. The plaintiff claimed that the sheriff and the county had shown a reckless indifference toward her constitutional rights through their hiring practices. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a plaintiff in a Section 1983 action must prove that a governmental unit, through deliberate conduct, was a moving force behind the alleged injury.

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