Guest Commentary

Gay Rights, Job Bias Cases Define Court Term

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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One year after a landmark constitutional decision on the nation's new federal health care law, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 took historic steps in two civil rights cases that will define the Roberts court for some time to come.

Believing that national opinion on gay marriage was moving in their direction, civil rights groups optimistically awaited the justices' rulings in two same-sex marriage cases on the October 2012 docket. However, they viewed a major challenge to the Voting Rights Act with considerable anxiety because of the Roberts court's existing precedents on race and voting rights. Their feelings were justified on both counts.

In United States v. Windsor, a 5-4 majority led by Justice Anthony Ken­nedy struck down the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman in the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That definition, Kennedy said, injected inequality into every aspect of the U.S. Code. The definition, which affected rights and benefits in more than 1,000 federal laws, violated the equal protection guaranteed to legally married same-sex couples.

The Obama administration, in a remarkable turnaround, had refused to defend the federal law and then joined with the law's opponents to urge its demise. Legally married same-sex couples almost immediately saw changes in a broad swath of areas, from health benefits to taxation.

The day before the same-sex marriage ruling, Roberts led a 5-4 majority in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder to strike down the Voting Rights Act's formula for determining which jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination were required to have changes in voting practices approved by a federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice.

The formula, Roberts said, was unconstitutional because it was based on out-dated information and repudiated practices. The decision dealt the most serious defeat to civil rights groups in decades because they lost their most powerful legal tool against voting discrimination.

The following are other highlights of 2013 in the Supreme Court.

Following oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, the outcome looked grim for the university's continued use of race as a factor in its admissions policy. But the university and the challenger, Abigail Fisher, lived to fight another day when the justices, voting 7-1, sent the case back to the lower federal appellate court with directions to put teeth into its application of strict scrutiny.

The justices, however, were not done with racial preferences. In October, they heard Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Michigan's defense of a state constitutional amendment banning race preferences in education. Stay tuned.

Justice Elena Kagan has described the high court's Fourth Amendment docket as a "growth industry," and cases in 2013 fed that hungry beast with a combination of high-tech and low-tech search-and-seizure controversies.

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