A number of crucial decisions from the Supreme Court’s 2006-2007 term starkly illustrate the disastrous consequences of the new composition of the Court for the future of women’s rights. The Court’s decisions in Gonzales v. Carhart, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., and Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke undermined longstanding constitutional guarantees and limited key statutory protections of the utmost importance to women. The fact that many of these cases were decided by narrow majorities over impassioned dissents evidences the sharp ideological divide that President Bush’s appointments have created on the Court.
The new majority on the Court turned its back on long-established constitutional rights.
_ In Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S.n> ___ (2007), the Court upheld in a 5-4 decision a nationwide ban that contains no exception to allow the use of a medically-approved abortion procedure when necessary for the health of a woman. This dangerous decision undermines the core principle of Roe v. Wade that requires the protection of women’s health when regulating abortion and allows the federal government to interfere with the medical decisions of a woman and her doctor. Notably, when the Court last addressed this issue seven years ago, in Stenberg v. Carhart, 530 U.S. 914 (2000), in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice O’Connor, it struck down a state law banning this procedure in large part because it lacked a health exception. Even more troubling, the majority in Gonzales v. Carhart declined to affirm the validity of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, instead merely “assuming” that those precedents were controlling.
Despite repeatedly avowing respect for precedent at their confirmation hearings, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito demonstrated an alarming disregard for the principle of stare decisis in this critical area of the law. In the clearest possible way, this case demonstrates that the Court’s balance has shifted with the confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.
_ In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. ___ (2007), the Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down efforts by two school districts to maintain racial integration in individual schools. The majority set back in key ways this country’s efforts to provide integrated public education to our nation’s children. When school districts are forbidden to take race into account in such limited, practical and common sense ways to achieve diversity, the result has often been significant resegregation of schools and reduced achievement for students of color. With Justice Kennedy as the new swing vote, there are still efforts that may be upheld, but the decision rejecting those of the two school districts was highly unfortunate. The decision negatively affects all students, including girls who continue to be subject to both race- and sex-based stereotypes in school and in other academic and social arenas. Research has demonstrated that racially integrated learning environments are essential to eliminating both race and gender stereotypes because they expose students to diversity and encourage them to reject gross generalizations and stereotypical thinking.
The Chief Justice, who, during his confirmation hearings, praised the decision in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools are unconstitutional, authored the majority opinion that, by invalidating such basic efforts to offer equal opportunity through integrated schools under the Equal Protection Clause, undermines the very premise of Brown. Justice Alito, who acknowledged diversity in educational settings as a recognized “compelling interest” in Supreme Court precedent and articulated his own appreciation of the value of diversity in the classroom at his confirmation hearings, joined in an opinion severely undermining those principles.
The Court’s narrow readings of statutory protections dealt major blows to equality in the workplace.
_ In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., 550 U.S.n> ___ (2007), the Court, in another 5-4 ruling, reversed the long-standing interpretation of Title VII, the federal law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion, that allowed victims of pay discrimination to challenge the discrimination as it continued over time. Lilly Ledbetter, one of the few women supervisors in a Goodyear tire plant, suspected that she was paid less than the men, but waited until she had some proof before she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Court, in a decision written by Justice Alito, held that she had no remedy because she had waited too long. Consequently, victims of discrimination who do not initially know of pay disparities, or are initially afraid to file a complaint, will have no remedy against such longstanding discrimination even though it continues into the present.
This decision will severely limit the ability of women to combat pay discrimination, which is a significant contributor to the fact that, on average, women earn only about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.
_ In Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, 551 U.S.n> ___ (2007), the Court rejected another bid for fair treatment for employees. The Court upheld a Department of Labor regulation that excludes all workers who provide in-home care for elderly or disabled people from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s wage and overtime protections. The challenged exclusion applies to employees of home care companies and agencies of any size and allows profit-making companies to legally pay home care workers deplorably low wages and deny them just compensation for overtime. The circuit court had ruled that the regulation was invalid because it was inconsistent with Congress’s purpose when it expanded the FLSA to cover domestic service workers in 1974 and inconsistent with other Department of Labor regulations. However, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision and upheld the regulation. Home care workers perform stressful, physically demanding jobs, but are among the lowest paid in the service industry. Research shows that median earnings for home health care workers employed on a full-time, full-year basis is below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. Further, these workers usually lack retirement plans and other employment benefits.
The Court’s decision to uphold the rule means that these workers, the vast majority of whom are women, especially women of color, will continue to be singled out for unfair treatment despite providing essential services to our nation’s elderly and disabled.
The Court fortunately declined to cut back on existing protections in one case, over a troubling concurrence by Justice Thomas.
_ In Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association v. Brentwood Academy, 551 U.S.n> ___ (2007), the TSSAA’s rules limiting coaches’ recruitment of student athletes were challenged as unconstitutional restrictions on speech. In reaching its unanimous decision to uphold the application of the rules, the Court declined the TSSAA’s invitation to overrule its 2001 decision that the athletic association is a “state actor” and therefore subject to constitutional requirements, and simply assumed that the TSSAA is a state actor for the purpose of its analysis. Thus, a valuable tool for ensuring that state athletic associations provide equal protection of the law to girls and minorities playing sports has been preserved.
Justice Thomas wrote in a separate concurrence that he would have overruled the 2001 decision. If his view had prevailed, and the TSSAA had not been found to be a state actor, high school athletic associations would no longer have been limited by the Constitution in their treatment of students and others.
The Supreme Court’s decisions this term illustrate the tremendous impact the Court has on women’s lives. The one-vote margin by which many critical cases were decided demonstrates in startling terms the impact of the changed composition of the Court. With important cases like these arising every term, it is vitally important that any future vacancy on this most important court be filled by individuals who will protect core legal rights for women.
For more information on these cases, see the Center’s amicus briefs at:
For more information on the Supreme Court and women’s rights more generally, see: