High Court Docket Heavy with Civil Rights Cases

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON _ The U.S. Supreme Court's docket for the term that begins Monday is sparse in numbers but heavy with the unfinished business of past years, particularly in the area of civil rights.

The newest justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who made her mark as a pioneer for women's rights in arguing landmark sex discrimination cases before the Court, has arrived to find an unusually wide array of discrimination cases already accepted for argument. Most raise questions that the Court itself has left unanswered in earlier rulings.

For example, one case calls on the Court to specify what an employee needs to show to prove a case of sexual harassment, which the Court first defined in 1986 as a form of employment discrimination that is subject to attack under federal law.

And, in a jury selection case, the Court is being asked to extend to sex the same principle it has already established for race and rule that lawyers may not use their peremptory challenges to eliminate prospective jurors on the basis of sex.

The justices will also decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which Congress passed to overturn a string of Supreme Court decisions that narrowed federal civil rights coverage in 1989, applies retroactively to the thousands of cases that were in pending when the new law took effect.

Voting rights cases are also prominent on the Court's civil rights agenda. Decisions in cases from Florida and Georgia may show whether the justices meant to embark on a fundamental re-examination of the role of race in electoral politics when they ruled last term that an oddly shaped North Carolina Congressional district, drawn to elect a black representative, was a presumptively unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

The Court has so far chosen only 51 cases for argument during the new term, compared with 66 at this time last year and 70 the year before. The current number was even smaller until this week, when the justices met for a day and a half to review the 1,500 new appeals that had accumulated over the summer.

When their conference was over Tuesday, they took the highly unusual step of jumping the gun on the traditional first Monday in October and announcing that they had accepted seven new cases for argument. …