Equality and Liberty

  • March 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Emily J.Martin, National Women’s Law Center

    On Wednesday, the Supreme Court delivered an important victory for pregnant workers, when in a 6-3 ruling it revived Peggy Young’s pregnancy discrimination case against UPS and sent it back to the lower courts for further proceedings.  In so ruling, the Supreme Court declined UPS’s invitation to read a key piece of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act completely out of the statute books.  This decision should put employers on notice that when they exclude pregnant workers with medical needs from accommodations that they make for workers with disabilities or injuries, they do so at their legal peril.  Nevertheless, the Court’s decision also requires a somewhat unpredictable and fact-intensive analysis of these sorts of pregnancy discrimination claims.  As a result, individual pregnant women may still face real uncertainty as to their workplace rights, and individual employers may choose to take their chances in litigation rather than promptly providing accommodations to women who need them.  Congress should act now to affirm and strengthen this decision, to ensure that no pregnant woman is forced to choose between her job and the health of her pregnancy.

    Peggy Young’s case arose more than seven years ago, when she became pregnant while working as a UPS driver.  Her doctor recommended that she avoid lifting more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy.  When UPS learned of this restriction, it refused to let her continue to do her job, even though in fact she only rarely did any heavy lifting.  UPS also refused to give her a light duty assignment, even though it provided such accommodations to drivers with on-the-job injuries, drivers with disabilities as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and drivers who had lost their commercial driver’s licenses for health reasons or other reasons—including DUI convictions.  As a result, Peggy Young was forced onto unpaid leave for the duration of her pregnancy, and lost her UPS-provided health insurance.  She sued, arguing that UPS had violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) when it refused to provide her the same sorts of accommodations it provided to others.  But despite the clear language of the PDA requiring employers to treat pregnant workers the same as those “similar in ability or inability to work,” she lost in the lower courts, which held that UPS’s accommodation rules were “pregnancy blind” and thus did not violate the law.

  • March 23, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Suja A. Thomas, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law; author of The Other Branch: Restoring the Jury’s Role in the American Constitution (forthcoming Cambridge University Press).  This post is based on her essay, Text-Bound Originalism (and Why Originalism Does Not Strictly Govern Same Sex Marriage).

    Many assume originalism has an important place in the debate about whether states can prohibit same sex marriage.  As the argument goes, the original public meaning of the Equal Protection Clause was the protection of African-Americans, so there is no constitutional barrier to states' prohibition of same sex marriage.  In deciding that states could prohibit same sex marriage, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recognized the relevance of this originalist interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause along with other arguments for permitting the prohibition of same sex marriage—all of which the Supreme Court will soon consider.

    But does originalism have a significant place in the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause and thus in the same sex marriage decision?  Those advocating the use of originalism believe that originalism must strictly govern the interpretation of the Constitution.  Thus far in arguing for this originalist methodology, however, they have not acknowledged that the text of the Constitution explicitly requires the application of originalism for the interpretation of one provision in the Constitution—the Seventh Amendment.  In ignoring this textual inclusion of originalism and corresponding textual exclusion of originalism elsewhere, originalists have not shown why originalism should strictly govern other parts of the Constitution.

  • February 23, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Counsel, Justice Program, Brennan Center for Justice

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    For decades, America’s incarceration policies have been questioned both for their result of dwarfing every other nation on the planet in the number of people locked behind bars but also for their vast racial disparities.

    Policies enacted during the height of the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s expanded the use of incarceration as a response to rising crime and fear of crime.  These include mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing laws, “three strikes you’re out” laws, federal funding targeted for building more prisons and other sentencing regimes that exponentially expanded America’s prison population.

    The numbers are revealing.  Since the 1970s, incarceration in the U.S. has increased steadily and dramatically.  In fact, since 1990 the U.S. has added about 1.1 million additional people behind bars, almost doubling the nation’s incarcerated population.  These prisoners are disproportionately people of color.

    African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males.  In 2013, almost 3 percent of black males were imprisoned compared to 0.5 percent of white males.  America’s prisons and jails cost more than $80 billion annually – about equivalent to the budget of the federal Department of Education.  This is the phenomenon of mass incarceration.

    A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law provides additional empirical evidence for incarceration’s ineffectiveness at today’s unprecedented levels.  Crime across the United States has steadily declined over the last two decades.  Currently, the crime rate is about half of what it was at its height in 1991.  Violent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991, and property crime by 43 percent.

  • February 20, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law; Director, Center for Law & Social Justice; Co-Director, Criminal Law Fellowship Program

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    In their influential 1970 study of marijuana prohibition in the United States, Richard J. Bonnie and Charles H. Whitebread found that “racial prejudice” was the “most prominent” factor in the passage of early marijuana prohibition laws.  When states began passing these laws in the first few decades of the 1900s, it was not uncommon to see legislatures expressly link marijuana prohibition with race.

    Reporting on a1929 hearing on a marijuana prohibition bill in Montana, for example, the Montana Standard told readers:

    “There was fun in the House Committee during the week when the Marihuana bill came up for consideration.  Marihuana is Mexican opium, a plant used by Mexicans and cultivated by Indians.  ‘When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff,’ explained Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County, ‘He thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.  I understand that over in Butte where the Mexicans often go for the winter they stage imaginary bullfights in the ‘Bower of Roses’ or put on tournaments for the favor of ‘Spanish Rose’ after a couple of whiffs of Marihuana.’ Everybody laughed and the bill was recommended for passage.”

    It is rare to see anyone rely on anything approaching this sort of overt racism in the debate over marijuana laws today.  Indeed, nearly everyone ― prohibitionists and legalization advocates alike ― agrees that racial disparities in marijuana enforcement (and drug enforcement more broadly) are undesirable.  Most also acknowledge the issue is a cause for real concern and action.

    And yet, disparities in marijuana enforcement persist.  A 2013 ACLU report found that blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, even though the two groups use marijuana at roughly equal rates.  In New York City, Mayor de Blasio called racial bias in marijuana arrests “wrong and unjust” during his campaign.  But the first months of his administration saw even more total marijuana possession arrests than before, with an alarming racial divide: 86 percent of the people arrested were black or Latino and only 10 percent were white.

    Why is it so hard to address the disproportionate impact of marijuana arrests on communities of color despite widespread acknowledgement that it is a serious problem?  A lot of it has to do with the way marijuana investigations are initiated and the decentralized nature of law enforcement in the United States.

  • February 18, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Ryan P. Haygood, Deputy Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    The history-making events of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, ultimately freed the vote for millions of Black voters.  But 50 years later, as we commemorate the march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are also reminded that more than two million Black people continue to be denied the right to vote by one of the vestiges of American slavery.

    Black voter registration in Selma in 1965 was made virtually impossible by Alabama’s relentless efforts to block the Black vote, which included requiring Blacks to interpret entire sections of Alabama’s constitution, an impossible feat for even the most learned.  On one occasion, even a Black man who had earned a Ph.D. was unable to pass Alabama’s literacy test.

    On Bloody Sunday, John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams led almost 600 unarmed men, women and children in a peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation their desire as Black people to participate in the political process.

    As they crossed the highest part of the bridge, the marchers were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers, who ridiculed, tear-gassed, clubbed, spat on, whipped and trampled them with their horses.  In the end, Lewis’s skull was fractured by a state trooper’s nightstick, and 17 other marchers were hospitalized.

    In direct response to Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson five months later signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.  Considered by many to be the greatest victory of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act removed barriers, such as literacy tests, that had long kept Blacks from voting.

    Despite the promise of increased political participation by Black people and other people of color created by the Voting Rights Act, which twice led to the election of a Black president, its full potential has not been realized by one of the last excluded segments of our society: Americans with criminal convictions.

    Today, more than 5 million Americans are locked out of the political process by state felon disfranchisement laws that disqualify people with felony convictions from voting.

    The historical record reveals that to prevent newly freed Blacks from voting after the Civil War, many state legislatures in the North and South tailored their felon disfranchisement laws to require the loss of voting rights only for those offenses committed mostly by Black people.