Civil and Human Rights

Supreme Court’s new term: racial prejudice in the justice, electoral systems

A new Supreme Court term begins this week without a ninth Justice, and – unlike Senate Republicans who continue to refuse to do their jobs and give the President’s nominee a hearing and a vote – the eight Justices currently on the Court still need to do their jobs to the extent they are able to. After all, a number of significant cases are on the Court’s docket this term. They may lack the blockbuster status of some cases in previous terms, but they still raise important issues that are central to who we are as a nation.

Two cases that will be heard early on, for example, will require the Court to confront racial bias in the criminal justice system, even as Americans struggle to come to grips with the fact that African Americans are disproportionately arrested, jailed and given harsh sentences.

In the case of Buck v. Davis, a jury sentenced Duane Buck to death, rather than life in prison, after a purported “expert” witness — called by Buck’s own attorney —testified that the defendant was more likely to be dangerous because he is African American. Given long-standing and persistent stereotypes that African American males are prone to violence, it’s hard to imagine that testimony didn’t affect the jurors deciding Mr. Buck’s fate. Nevertheless, the lower courts held that Mr. Buck’s sentence should stand because he didn’t raise his claim quickly enough that his counsel was ineffective.

The second case, Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado, involves a juror who allegedly made several racially discriminatory comments about the defendant and his alibi witness during jury deliberations. For example, the juror stated that he did not trust the defendant’s alibi witness because, among other things, he was an “illegal,” even though he had testified at trial that he was a legal resident. The jury convicted the defendant, but the lower courts refused to inquire into the allegations of racial bias based on a rule that bars courts from examining what occurred during jury deliberations – except in specified circumstances not present here.

Neither of these cases should give the Court pause: Our Constitution makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that juries should be impartial and that all people are entitled to equal protection under the law. Indeed, the Supreme Court itself has previously recognized that “[d]iscrimination on the basis of race, odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice.” These cases will give the Supreme Court not one but two shots to make good on that commitment.

The high Court will also consider the role of race in our electoral system in two cases involving how states draw district lines for state and federal legislative seats. In both Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections and McCrory v. Harris, the Court is being asked to decide whether the use of a fixed racial quota to draw district lines violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court’s answer should be “yes”: The use of quotas to over-pack minorities into certain districts – thereby limiting their influence elsewhere – violates both the Fourteenth and the Fifteenth Amendments. Whatever the Court decides, the impact on how legislative districts are drawn – and therefore who gets elected – will shape who makes the laws that affect all Americans.

The Supreme Court will also review two consolidated cases involving the Fair Housing Act. In Bank of America v. Miami and Wells Fargo v. Miami, the Court will consider whether Miami can sue banks that allegedly engaged in a decade-long practice of predatory lending, targeting minority borrowers for costly, high-risk loans. According to the city, these lending practices led to unnecessary foreclosures, which in turn deprived the city of tax revenue and forced it to pay for additional municipal services in the affected neighborhoods.

Despite the injuries Miami allegedly suffered, the banks argue that the city can’t sue because the Fair Housing Act wasn’t enacted to protect cities. In fact, the law was enacted precisely to address housing discrimination that affects cities, and it was amended to ensure that private actors, like cities, could help enforce its protections. These consolidated cases could have significant implications for the ability of cities to hold banks accountable for the types of practices that led to the Great Recession.

During the coming term, the Court will hear cases on many other important issues, as well—cases involving class actions, the staffing of senior positions in the federal government, and religion, to name a few. That’s why it’s worth paying attention not only to the person who isn’t yet sitting on the Court, but also to the people who are – and the important issues they’ll be deciding.

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