As the Supreme Court kicks off its new term this week, civil rights – and the country’s evolving definition of “equality” – will take center stage.
The Court is likely to be called upon to decide cases affecting issues that have plagued the American political landscape for decades, including affirmative action in higher education, voting rights, and same-sex marriage.
The term is set to begin with Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, No. 10-1491, in which 12 Nigerian plaintiffs brought suit under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) against Dutch, British, and Nigerian oil companies. The plaintiffs claim that these corporations aided and abetted the Nigerian government in committing human rights abuses, but the Second Circuit denied relief because the ATS does not give U.S. courts jurisdiction over such claims against corporations. Should the Supreme Court reverse, this case could have a major impact on the way corporations conduct business abroad.
On October 10th, the Court will hear arguments on a question that could have far-reaching effects for the business of higher education. In Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345, plaintiffs Abigail Fisher and Rachel Michalewicz – two white women – sued the University of Texas at Austin. They claim that the university wrongfully denied them admission because its policies, which include taking racial diversity into account in selecting part of its class, are discriminatory. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, however, and the Supreme Court will now take up this divisive issue.
The Court is also likely to hear two other hot issues this term. In a September 19th appearance at the University of Colorado, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that she and her colleagues will “most likely” take up the question “toward the end of the current term” whether the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) barring the federal government from providing benefits to same-sex couples married in states recognizing such unions is constitutional. Just last May in Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 682 F.3d 1, the First Circuit held that it is not, and the Court’s decision either way will affect similar challenges to DOMA that have arisen in a number of Circuits.
The Supreme Court is also likely to hear one of the many challenges to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, including cases dealing with voter identification and redistricting. Such a case would likely take up the unanswered question in 2009’s Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a seven-judge majority, cast doubt on the law’s continued validity, as “[w]e are now a very different nation” than the one that enacted the Voting Rights Act more than 40 years ago. Whether the Court deems the Act’s protections to still be necessary, particularly those requiring federal review of changes to election procedures in regions that have historically been plagued by racial discrimination and prejudice, could affect election outcomes across the nation. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Court, that is all too familiar with the fallout of 2000’s Bush v. Gore, will be willing to take the risk to its reputation that is necessary to settle these questions.