High Court Docket Heavy with Civil Rights Cases

Article excerpt

Following are details of some of the new term's most important cases. Civil Rights

The harassment case, Harris v. Forklift Systems, No. 92-1168, marks only the second time the Court has considered the legal consequences of sexual harassment on the job. The Court ruled unanimously in 1986 that a sexually hostile work environment is a form of sex discrimination, prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But without further guidance from the justices, the lower federal courts have split over how to define the existence of such an environment.

In this case, a woman who worked as a manager at a Nashville truck leasing company sued the man who owned the company, charging him with continually subjecting her to vulgar and sexually demeaning remarks. While accepting her accusations as true, lower courts dismissed the case on the ground that the behavior had not caused her "severe psychological injury."

The Court is not likely to agree that a hostile work environment requires proof of psychological injury, and in fact the company itself stopped defending that standard once the justices agreed to hear the woman's appeal. But the Court's eventual choice of a standard _ whether, for example, the offending behavior should be viewed from the perspective of the victim or instead from that of a hypothetical "reasonable woman" _ could determine how powerful a tool this aspect of discrimination law will be in the future.

The Court will use two cases, one involving a claim of sex discrimination and the other race discrimination, to decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1991 should be given retroactive effect. Congress and the Bush administration could not resolve the retroactive issue when the law was passed _ Congress wanted retroactivity, but the administration was vigorously opposed _ and so the issue was left to the courts.

Beyond the decision's impact on thousands of pending cases, the Court may also arrive at a general rule for determining whether new laws should be given retroactive effect in the absence of an explicit Congressional directive. The cases are Landgraf v. USI Film Products, No. 92-757, and Rivers v. Roadway Express, No. 92-938.

In a series of rulings since 1986, the Court has made race an impermissible factor in the selection of juries. Now it will decide whether sex is in the same prohibited category. The State of Alabama, suing a man in state court to establish his paternity and child support obligation, used its peremptory challenges to remove male prospective jurors and create an all-female jury.

The Alabama courts rejected the man's argument that the exclusion of men amounted to unconstitutional sex discrimination. The case is J.E.B. v. T.B., No. 92-1239.

The voting rights cases from Georgia and Florida raise separate issues under the Voting Rights Act. Black voters, who make up nearly one-fifth the population of rural Bleckley County, Ga., persuaded a federal appeals court that the single-member commission that governs the county serves to dilute their voting power, in violation of the law.

At issue for the Supreme Court in this case, Holder v. Hall, No. 91-2012, is whether the Voting Rights Act applies in that situation, and whether it authorizes a federal court to expand the membership of the governing body.

The underlying question in a pair of procedurally complex redistricting cases from Florida is whether the plans that the state Legislature drew for its own reapportionment violated the Voting Rights Act by not providing the maximum possible number of districts in which Hispanic residents would make up a majority.

The Florida State Senate case, DeGrandy v. Johnson, No. 92-593, also involves potentially competing claims by black and Hispanic residents. The State House of Representatives case is Johnson v. …