Overruling the Court

By Friedman, Leon | The American Prospect, August 27, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Overruling the Court

Friedman, Leon, The American Prospect

The Supreme Court has been interpreting civil rights laws narrowly. It's time for Congress to intervene.

ONE OF THE MYTHS OF OUR political system is that the Supreme Court has the last word on the scope and meaning of federal law. But time and time again, Congress has shown its dissatisfaction with Supreme Court interpretations of laws it passes--by amending or re-enacting the legislation to clarify its original intent and overrule a contrary Court construction.

The Supreme Court often insists that Congress cannot really "overrule" its decisions on what a law means: The justices' interpretation has to be correct since the Constitution gives final say to the highest court in the land. But Congress certainly has the power to pass a new or revised law that "changes" or "reverses" the meaning or scope of the law as interpreted by the Court, and the legislative history of the new law usually states that it was intended to "overrule" a specific Court decision.

Often the reversal is in highly technical areas, such as the statute of limitations in securities-fraud cases, the jurisdiction of tribal courts on Indian reservations, or the power of state courts to order denaturalization of citizens. But in the last 20 years, a main target of congressional "overruling" has been the Supreme Court's decisions in the area of civil rights.

In 1982, for example, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to overrule a narrow Supreme Court holding in Mobile v. Bolden, a 1980 decision that addressed whether intentional discrimination must be shown before the act could be invoked. In 1988, Congress overruled another Supreme Court decision (in the 1984 case Grove City College v. Bell) by passing the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which broadened the coverage of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legislative history of that law specifically recited that "certain aspects of recent decisions and opinions of the Supreme Court have unduly narrowed or cast doubt upon" a number of federal civil rights statutes and that "legislative action is necessary to restore the prior consistent and long-standing executive branch interpretations" of those laws.

And in 1991, Congress passed a broad, new Civil Rights Act that specifically reversed no fewer than five Supreme Court cases decided in 1989--decisions that severely restricted and limited workers' rights under federal antidiscrimination laws. Led by Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy in the Senate and New York Republican Hamilton Fish, Jr., in the House, Congress acted to undo those rulings, as well as make other changes to federal law that strengthened the weapons available to workers against discrimination. Despite partisan contention over the language of certain provisions (which led to last-minute-compromise language), President George Bush the elder supported the changes. The new law recited in its preamble that its purpose was "to respond to recent decisions of the Supreme Court by expanding the scope of relevant civil rights statutes in order to provide adequate protection to victims of discrimination."

GIVEN THE CURRENT SUPREME Court's track record in civil rights cases, there can be no doubt that congressional remediation is again necessary. In a series of cases over the past two years, the Court has been giving narrow readings to various federal civil rights laws. And once again, an attentive Congress can and should overrule the Court's decisions if the legislators care about fairness in the operation of government and in the workplace.

The recent cases were decided by identical 5-4 votes: Three conservative justices (William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas) were joined by two centrists (Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy) to narrow the reach of the laws at issue. Four liberal justices (John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer) dissented in all of the cases, four of which are described below.

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