LAST YEAR'S presidential election has changed the face of this
year's Supreme Court.
For the first time in Supreme Court history two women will sit
on the bench - less than parity, but a long way from 1980 when
there were no women.
For the first time in a quarter-century, a new Democratic
appointee is joining the court.
For the first time in 12 years, the lawyer for the United
States on the first Monday in October will be a liberal Democrat
rather than a conservative Republican.
The new justice - Ruth Bader Ginsburg - and the government
lawyer - Solicitor General Drew S. Days III - may make the court
marginally more hospitable for civil rights claims. Ginsburg won
her reputation as the leading women's rights advocate of the 1970s.
At the same time, Days headed the Civil Rights Division of the
Justice Department under President Jimmy Carter.
Ginsburg and Days are beginning their work at a time when the
court's unusually light docket is dominated by civil rights
Voting rights, job discrimination, sexual harassment, abortion
clinic protests, jury exclusion based on gender: these are the
biggest cases of a term so far devoid of blockbuster religion or
free speech cases.
Already Days has made a difference by abandoning the position
of George Bush's Justice Department in four important cases. In
those cases, Days is arguing that:
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 should be retroactive.
Dismissal of a juror based on gender is unconstitutional.
A single-member county government in Georgia violates the
Voting Rights Act.
The government's legal standard in child pornography cases is
too broad, making it too easy to convict.
None of this means that the Supreme Court has suddenly become a
liberal heaven. The court does not change direction quickly, and
the most recent Supreme Court term brought some of the most
conservative results in recent history.
Legal experts of different political persuasions say that
Ginsburg's replacement of Byron R. White will change the court's
direction in only a few areas - those in which it is closely
divided, such as the separation of church and state, affirmative
action and marginal issues involving the death penalty.
Steven Shapiro, associate legal director of the American Civil
Liberties Union, summarizes this way: "There is little reason to
think this court will lead the way in identifying new
constitutional and political rights. There is some reason to hope
that the threat of a wholesale assault on settled legal rights may
be somewhat diminished."
But Bruce Fein, a conservative legal pundit, disagrees with
Shapiro. Ginsburg may take a hard look at some civil rights claims
because of her dislike of racial and sexual stereotypes, he says.
Fein also rejects Shapiro's view that the current court has
assaulted precedent. "Remember this is the court that refused to
overturn the legal precedent of Roe vs. Wade."
Here are some of the more controversial cases the court has
agreed to hear:
On the last day of the 1992-93 term, the Supreme Court issued
what may have been its most important decision of the year, ruling
that racial gerrymandering of election districts is
The justices will hardly have settled into their high-backed
chairs Monday before they will dive back into this thicket with
voting rights cases from Florida and Georgia.
In last term's decision, Shaw vs. Reno, the court ruled that a
snake-like, 160-mile-long congressional district in North Carolina
may be unconstitutional even though it was drawn up to comply with
the Voting Rights Act.
Mark W. Tushnet, a law professor at Georgetown Law Center, says
that the court's analysis may be the first step to overturning the
Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965 and credited with opening the
door of public office to blacks and Hispanics. …