Supreme Court Decisions Highlight Evolving Nature of Civil Rights

People gather at Memorial Park in Omaha, Nebraska, June 26 to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
People gather at Memorial Park in Omaha, Nebraska, June 26 to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

By Bridget Hunter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
June 28, 2013

It might seem strange that in a government of the people, by the people and for the people, the guardianship of constitutional rights rests with nine individuals appointed for life, yet that model has served the United States effectively for more than two centuries.

The Supreme Court of the United States tends to be a quiet, dignified body — contemplative, deliberative and conscious of the responsibility vested in it as the ultimate arbiter of constitutionality.

The court shares power in the federal government with the presidency and Congress in a system of checks and balances established by the U.S. Constitution.

World attention usually focuses on the executive (the president) and legislative (Congress) branches, but every year at the end of June, the judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court, grabs headlines as it releases key decisions in cases argued since the previous October.

Two recent high-profile decisions highlight the evolving nature of both U.S. society and the interpretation of laws intended to protect individual rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

THE DEFENSE OF MARRIAGE ACT

In United States v. Windsor, argued March 27 and decided June 26, the court affirmed a lower court decision that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional because it deprives individuals of equal liberty.

“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State,” the court found. “It also forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect.”

The decision was received warmly by the White House.

“I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act,” President Obama said in a June 26 statement. “This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”

THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT

The president was less pleased with the court’s finding in Shelby County, Alabama v. Attorney General Holder, which was argued February 27 and decided June 25.The court found “Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional; its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance” [of changes to voting procedures].

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting, particularly in southern states. Section 4 of the act provides a “coverage formula,” and defines the “covered jurisdictions” as states or political subdivisions that maintained tests or devices as prerequisites to voting, and had low minority voter registration or turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The coverage formula and preclearance requirement, which apply to nine states and some counties in other states, initially were set to expire after five years, but were reauthorized several times, most recently in 2006, without changes to the coverage formula.

On June 25, the court held that in the half-century since the Voting Rights Act became law, the conditions in the United States have “changed dramatically,” and the law’s “extraordinary and unprecedented features” have been successful in achieving voting registration and turnout parity between covered and uncovered jurisdictions. Despite that success, Congress continued to reauthorize the act as if nothing had changed, the court said.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, said the coverage formula Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores 50 years of progress, “keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”

In a June 25 statement, President Obama expressed disappointment with the decision, saying that “invalidating one of [the act’s] core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”

However, he agreed with the Supreme Court’s directive that Congress should revisit the issue. “I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.”

A Supreme Court decision is the highest level of judicial review and frequently the final step in the exercise of federal authority that begins in Congress, is carried out by the executive branch and is reviewed and interpreted by the judicial branch.

Each year, litigants in hundreds of cases petition the Supreme Court seeking a “writ of certiorari” — or agreement of the court to hear an appeal from a lower court. Less than 1 percent of these cases are accepted for review. In an average annual term, the court hears arguments in about 120 cases.

The Supreme Court is rarely a “court of first review” — it does not rule on issues of fact except in disputes between states or with another nations. The vast majority of its work involves appeals of lower court decisions, generally involving issues of federalism (the extent of federal government authority vs. state authority) and constitutionality (whether a lower court ruling is in accordance with the U.S. Constitution).