Guest Post

  • May 23, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Madeline Gomez and Julia Quinn. Ms. Gomez is the LSRJ Reproductive Justice Fellow at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Ms. Quinn is the LSRJ Reproductive Justice Fellow at the National Health Law Program.                

    “Women have their own equal dignity.”

    So said Justice Anthony Kennedy last year in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that codified marriage equality. This pronouncement was part of a broad majority ruling that opined on personal decision-making in moving, sometimes even flowery prose. Yet this week, the Court declined to take the opportunity to affirm that women’s dignity includes the right to access contraceptive coverage regardless of their employer’s religious beliefs. Instead, in their Zubik v. Burwell per curiam opinion, the justices sent the case back to the lower courts for further review. Some have speculated that Justice Kennedy’s reluctance to side with employees motivated this procedural move. It was disappointing to those hoping the Obergefell decision signaled an understanding on the Justice’s part of the importance of self-determination to equality, including for women. But all hope is not yet lost. In the abortion rights case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court’s “swing” voter has a second chance to prove that women’s dignity has power beyond rhetorical flourish.

    Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell relied on what Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe called “a tightly wound . . . double helix” of two principles rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment: Equal Protection and Due Process. Relying on Kennedy’s own words, Professor Tribe dubbed the doctrine “equal dignity.” Kenji Yoshino of NYU School of Law called it an “antisubordination liberty” because, he argued, the analysis looks to the impact that denying the liberty in question has on the relevant subordinated group. Thus, the Constitution demands the recognition and extension of the marriage right to same-sex couples not only for equality reasons, but also because doing so redresses some of the discrimination experienced by lesbian women and gay men.

    Obergefell’s reliance upon dignity as a fundamental constitutional principle related to questions of intimacy and equality was not novel. Nearly 25 years ago it was at the heart of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a decision authored in part by Justice Kennedy. There, using language Obergefell would later echo, the Court declared personal dignity and autonomy “central” to constitutional conceptions of liberty ‒ including reproductive rights.

  • May 20, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Herman N. (Rusty) Johnson, Jr., Associate Professor of Law, Samford University Cumberland School of Law

    May 18, 2016, is a momentous day for U.S. workers. The U.S. Department of Labor released new overtime rules that restore the New Deal-era promise of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by increasing the salary level required to exempt certain employees from overtime pay. The new rules will be a boon for working and middle class Americans, as it will increase their pay, provide them more time to spend with their families, lead to improvements in health and productivity, and create jobs.

    The FLSA, originally enacted in 1938, assures overtime premium pay of time-and-a-half for employees who work more than 40 hours per week. However, the FLSA exempts some types of employees from the overtime protection, in particular white collar workers classified as executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, and computer employees. Congress delegated authority to the Secretary of Labor to define the exemptions, and generally, employers must satisfy three requirements to properly classify employees as exempt pursuant to a white collar category: 1) the employees must be paid a fixed salary, 2) the employees must be paid at least a specific salary amount, and 3) the employees’ primary duties must involve one of the enumerated exemptions.

    Currently, the DOL’s regulations set the salary level at $455 per week, which is $23,660 on an annual basis. The rigors of inflation and inattention have eroded the FLSA’s overtime protection at this level. The designated amount is less than the poverty line for a family of four and only 1.6 times the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Furthermore, at present, a mere seven percent of salaried workers receive overtime protection, whereas 62 percent did so in 1975.

    The new DOL regulations increase the salary level required to trigger the white collar exemptions. The revised rule, which takes effect December 1 of this year, sets the salary level at $913 per week, or $47,476 annually, which equates to the 40th percentile of earnings of full-time salaried workers in the lowest-wage Census region (currently the South). The new rule also creates an updating mechanism which benchmarks the salary level every three years to the same metric.

  • May 19, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Margo Schlanger, Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School

    Consensus for criminal justice and prison conditions reform has been building, and one key urgent area of reform is to reduce our current overuse of solitary confinement. In my new ACS Issue Brief, “How the ADA Regulates and Restricts Solitary Confinement for People with Mental Disabilities,” I argue that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provide tools to challenge solitary confinement of individuals with mental disabilities.

    American incarceration rates ballooned in the 1980s and 1990s—and so too did our prisons’ and jails’ use of solitary confinement and other forms of restrictive housing. Right now, in federal, state, and local jails and prisons, an estimated 90,000 to 115,000 prisoners are housed in solitary confinement. They are locked into their cells, about the size of a parking space, for 22 or more hours a day. Their access to programming, reading materials, visitation, exercise, and other “privileges” is extremely limited.

    Change may finally be coming. In 2015, Justice Kennedy noted in a concurring opinion that “[t]here are indications of a new and growing awareness in the broader public of the subject of corrections and of solitary confinement in particular.” Research confirms that “Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.” Shortly after that, President Obama decried the overuse of solitary confinement; he has since required significant federal reform, including many measures to help keep prisoners with mental disabilities out of solitary.

    Nonetheless, people with mental disabilities are vastly overrepresented in solitary. Sometimes this is because of pure discrimination; other times, because failure to appropriately treat or manage prisoners with mental disabilities leads to their prison misconduct. Once in solitary confinement, isolation frequently exacerbates mental disability, causing a feedback loop of difficult behavior and lengthening terms of isolation.

  • May 18, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., Clinical Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Law School            

    This week the United States Supreme Court will consider the case of Lamondre Tucker, an African-American man who was sentenced to death in 2011―under the banner of the Confederate flag. Tucker was convicted in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, a county that is plagued by racially biased jury selection. One recent study found that African-Americans have been excluded from juries in Caddo Parish at a rate that is three times higher than whites, a practice so insidious that it has earned the nickname “blackstriking.”

    An amicus brief filed by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice in Tucker v. Louisiana notes, “Of the twenty death sentences imposed in the modern era by Caddo Parish juries, fifteen were imposed on Black defendants. Of those fifteen, ten were charged with the murder of a white victim. Conversely, no white defendant has ever been sentenced to death in Caddo Parish for killing a Black victim. Taken at face value, these numbers suggest that the badges of the Confederacy adorning the courthouse entrance in Caddo Parish signify more than stale remnants of a bygone era.”

    Unfortunately, Tucker’s case is not an isolated incident. Just last month, Kenneth Fults was executed by the state of Georgia despite being represented by a lawyer known for using racial slurs. Fults, an African-American man, was accused of killing a young white woman. After the trial, one of the jurors reportedly explained, "that n***r got just what should have happened . . . I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that’s what that n***r deserved."

    Duane Buck’s case was equally contaminated by racial bias. Buck, an African-American man, was sentenced to death for a crime that occurred 20 years ago after a defense expert testified that Buck’s race was a relevant predictor of his future dangerousness. The prosecutor subsequently asserted that "the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness . . ." The Texas jury sentenced Mr. Buck to death based upon the finding that he was likely to be a danger in the future. Mr. Buck has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case.

    In South Carolina, Johnny Bennett had his death sentence reversed by U.S. District Judge Mark Gergel because the prosecutor, Donnie Myers, called Bennett, an African-American man, “King Kong,” a “beast of burden,” and other racist names during his trial. Myers also highlighted the fact that Bennett had a sexual relationship with a “blonde-headed lady” in order to fan the flames of racial prejudice. The state attorney general has, not surprisingly, announced that he is appealing Judge Gergel’s decision.

    Even when offered a chance to correct injustices of the not-so-distant past, many prosecutors cling to racially tainted verdicts. These cases are not relics of the past, they are evidence that racial bias continues to infect the entire capital punishment system.

  • May 18, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Christopher Wilds, Herbert and Nell Singer Social Justice Fellow, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

    Imagine being a Black student in a school district where, for decades, one school has almost never enrolled Black students and the predominantly Black school suffers from crumbling ceilings, decades old textbooks, bathrooms without stalls, and discriminatory discipline policies. Today, 62 years after the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) litigated and won Brown v. Board of Education – the case that declared the doctrine of “separate, but equal” unconstitutional and heralded the end of legal segregation in this country – LDF remains enmeshed in the struggle to eradicate “apartheid schools” – the racially isolated “black schools” that are inferior to their counterpart “white schools” and undermine educational outcomes for far too many African-American children. While the legal victory in Brown has had a significant historical and societal impact, it did not completely eliminate the pervasive racial discrimination and educational inequalities faced by students of color.

    For students in far too many school districts across the nation ‒ including those in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana ‒ racially segregated schools are a fact of life. A report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA noted that the number of majority-minority schools (those with zero to 10 percent white enrollment) has more than tripled in enrollment in the past 25 years. And a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released yesterday details the harms that flow from such racially and economically isolated schools: Specifically, the report found that schools that are isolated by poverty and race generally had fewer resources, more disciplinary actions, and poorer academic outcomes than other schools.

    Despite the pervasiveness of racially isolated schools, desegregation remains a significant challenge ‒ just as it was 62 years ago. The GAO report notes that that the Department of Justice is monitoring and enforcing about 178 open desegregation cases. LDF likewise oversees a docket of about 100 desegregation cases ‒ many of which have been open since the Brown era. LDF’s work in the Thomas v. School Board of St. Martin Parish desegregation case is a powerful example of how and why the contemporary effort to erase the vestiges of segregation in education remains critically important.