Health Care

health3450267795_1e5e6ee559Americans have no federal right to quality health care, health insurance, or non-emergency treatment. In the United States, there are more than 45 million people without health insurance, and many more are seriously underinsured, as their insurance companies find whatever loopholes possible to refuse to pay for the necessary treatments. Most Americans would agree that our health care system is just not up to par, but the debate on how to fix it is undeniably one of the biggest and most controversial political issues of our time.

There are, however, some key rights. Children insured through the low-income Medicaid program, for example, are eligible for basic pediatric care, such as hearing and vision tests, and lead screening. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more difficult for people and their families to get the health care that the federal Medicaid Act guarantees.

For example, Westside Mothers, a group of women in Detroit, Michigan, found that their state wasn’t providing their children with the basic screening, diagnostic, and treatment services required by Medicaid, and they were eventually forced to take their case to court. Although the mothers eventually won, they found themselves in a long and unexpected battle over the effort to limit the rights of individuals to take a state to court and hold it accountable to its citizens.

Recent court rulings have also made it more difficult for people to enforce other rights related to health. A group of parents in Kentucky brought a case to court on behalf of their children because the public housing they lived in was full of lead paint, which can cause severe brain damage in children. Their local housing authority refused to remove it. The federal court hearing the case ruled that the parents couldn’t go to court to enforce their rights under the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, the law passed by Congress to force housing authorities and property owners to remove lead paint. The court also said its decision might have been different had the parents owned or leased their property, but because these individuals lived in public housing they had no right to bring this case.

In Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., the Supreme Court decided that a patient, Charles Riegel, could not go forward with his lawsuit for negligence in the design, manufacture and labeling of a medical device, which had burst during a medical procedure, causing extreme complications. The Court ruled that the federal process for approving medical devices set the standards for safety, superseding the authority of state laws. As a result, this decision left health care standards in the hands of federal regulators, leaving the patient with no alternative avenues of relief once a medical device is approved by the federal government.

Court rulings have also affected the rights of people in immigrant communities all across the country who struggle to communicate with their health care providers, often with life and death consequences. Under federal and some state laws, medical providers have the responsibility to ensure that they are communicating with patients, from listening to concerns to talking about diagnoses and proposed treatments. Federal law says that hospitals or other health care providers that take federal money must make their proposed treatments available in languages that people can understand, but, as a result of a Supreme Court ruling in a case called Alexander v. Sandoval, people can no longer go to court to enforce this law. This case also limited the ability of patients to challenge other barriers to access, such as discrimination by medical providers.

As a result of recent federal court rulings, a right to quality health care for all has been pushed further away. Americans have been left with fewer weapons to fight for their rights. (Photo by ProgressOhio.)

For more information:

  • Westside Mothers v. Haveman, 289 F.3d 852 (6t Cir. 2002).
  • Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312 (2008).
  • Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001).

See also some of our partner organizations that work in health care:

Workers’ Rights

The courts have made it harder and harder for workers to make their workplaces fair and safe. In the wake of a series of recent Supreme Court decisions, state employees have lost the right to go to court to seek compensation for unfair labor practices such as the denial of overtime pay.

In 1992, for example, a group of probation officers in Maine sued the State of Maine, their employer, for violating overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Maine court ruled against the officers on technical and procedural grounds (that states cannot be sued in a state court), ignoring the fact that these workers were discriminated against.

In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that workers over 40 years old who are discriminated against, fired, or demoted on the basis of their age cannot recover back pay or other money damages from state employers. This ruling leaves state employees over age 40 without any legal protection from being discriminated against because of their age.

The Supreme Court has also ruled that if a worker is discriminated against, fired, or demoted because of a disability-even if the disability doesn’t affect their work-they cannot recover back pay or damages from state employers. After being treated for breast cancer, the University of Alabama’s Medical Center transferred and demoted Patricia Garrett from her job as supervising nurse at the Women’s Services division of the hospital even though she could still perform her job well. Ms. Garrett took her employer to court. The Supreme Court found that she had been discriminated against, but that state employers should be shielded from disability discrimination laws and that the State of Alabama would not have to give her lost wages. Therefore, Ms. Garrett and others who are discriminated against are no longer able to recover lost wages or any other damages from state-run employers, even though it may be found in court that these employers discriminate.

In March of 2002, the Supreme Court weakened the almost 80-year-old protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), to make it almost impossible for undocumented workers to enforce their hard-earned workers rights. Joe Castro, an undocumented worker, was fired from his job at Hoffman Plastics when he became involved in union-organizing activities. The Court first found that firing an employee for this reason is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. Then, because he was undocumented, the decision was reversed. Because of this case, there are now few, if any, legal consequences for an employer who fires an undocumented worker for union activity.

Just this May, in 2007, the Supreme Court further stripped protections to our civil rights in the case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Co. While Lilly Ledbetter was hired at the same salary as her male counterparts, she saw their raises outstrip her own over a 19-year period, and she sued for gender discrimination. While she was originally awarded $3.8 million in damages by a lower court, after various appeals by Goodyear she received absolutely nothing in the end, due to a technicality about the time period a worker has to file a claim. This case has provided us with yet another distressing example of the rollback of our civil protections as a case of flagrant discrimination in the workplace went entirely without remedy. (Photo by Saad.Akhtar.)

For more information:

  • Urban Agenda
  • Alden v. Maine (527 U.S. 706, 1999)
  • Kimmel v. Florida Board of Regents (528 U.S. 62, 2000)
  • Bd. of Trustees of the Univ. of Alabama v. Garrett (531 U.S. 356, 2001)
  • Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board (535 U.S. 137, 2002)

See also some of our partner organizations that work in workers’ rights:
Workplace Fairness

Women’s Rights

In the past few years, the federal courts have stripped away basic protections for women across the board, from protections against violence and harassment to employment to recent rulings on abortion.

When Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, it was intended to provide women with a strong legal remedy if they had been raped or a victim of domestic violence. To discourage gender-motivated violence, the law allowed women to sue their rapists and their harassers in federal court.

The Supreme Court, however, eliminated the legal remedy of the VAWA in a case called US v. Morrison in 2000. (The recent reauthorization of this statute, in December 2005, was only to the parts that weren’t invalidated by this case.) Christy Brzonkala brought a case against Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, who repeatedly and forcibly gang raped her just after she enrolled as a student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Brzonkala’s case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which focused on whether Congress had the authority to enact the VAWA. The Court’s ruling generally limited Congress’ powers to affect civil rights laws in general and, more specifically, ruled that women could no longer take cases of gender-motivated violence to federal court.

Furthermore, federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal funding (with a few exceptions). This has meant that colleges should be fair in providing opportunities for programs such as team sports. If a university is 70 percent women and 30 percent men, for example, it shouldn’t have more men’s sports teams than women’s.

The National Wrestling Coaches Association tried to challenge this in court, arguing that it was forced to terminate men’s college-wrestling teams if they didn’t have women’s wrestling teams. The court ruled against the coaches, and we lots important Constitutional protections for women in the process.

Recently there have been a number of other significant challenges to basic laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender. This year not only saw a big blow to protections of equal pay in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Co. case, but the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in April 2007 to uphold the constitutionality of a federal ban against late-term or “partial-birth” abortion. This case alone seriously jeopardizes women’s rights to make the choices about their own bodies that were guaranteed in the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling of the 1970’s. Reproductive rights are among the most crucial rights to the equality of women in our society; protecting them is imperative, especially in a political climate in which many people are seeking to deny women agency on the basis of their moral beliefs. (Photo by Brian L. Romig.)

For more information:

  • US v. Morrison (529 U.S. 598, 2000)
  • National Wrestling Coaches Assn v. Department of Education (366 F.3d 930 (D.C. Cir.) 2004)
  • Girl Wrestler

See also some of our partner organizations that work in women’s rights:
Legal Momentum

Senior Citizens’ Rights

oldlady3389188017_5f3ff976f5Since the 1930s, older Americans have had protections in their later years-from Social Security to Medicare, and, more recently, with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Passed in 1967, this law was intended to protect older Americans from discrimination on the job as long as they are qualified and can do the job. Now, however, all these protections are under attack.

For example, in Florida, employees of the state university took their employer to federal court because the university’s salary policies discriminated against them and all older workers. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that Congress can’t make states liable for violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, even if the employees can prove the state discriminated against them.

In another recent case, Walter Biggins, a 62-year-old, was fired from his job as a chemist just a few weeks before he would have qualified for a pension, and replaced with a 35-year-old. Mr. Biggins claimed that he was fired so the company would not have to pay him retirement money, and that this had a discriminatory effect on older workers. The Supreme Court took the case and-in another blow to older Americans-decided that firing an employee in order to keep that employee from receiving pension benefits does not violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).

In a March 2005 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that workers could take their employers to court for policies that discriminate against them based on age. However, the court also ruled that employers can, in fact, discriminate if they can prove the policy in question was based on reasonable factors other than age. While the Supreme Court’s decision will keep the courthouse doors open for older workers, it makes age-discrimination cases harder and harder to prove. (Photo by alan(ator).)

For more information:

  • http://www.nsclc.org
  • Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents (528 U.S. 62, 2000)
  • Hazen Paper Company v. Biggins(507 U.S. 604, 1993)
  • Smith v. City of Jackson (351 F.3d 183, 2005)

See also some of our partner organizations that work in senior citizens’ rights:

  • AARP
  • National Senior Citizens Law Center

Racial Justice

race3644112373_52e9974f75Throughout the history of our nation, federal law and court rulings have been crucial to protecting racial justice. The fact remains that people of color still experience discrimination in subtle and overt ways. To make matters worse, several recent key cases in federal court are making it more and more difficult to go to court if you are discriminated against on the basis of race.

Brown v. Board of Education was an historic legal victory. In this landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools were not, in fact, equal and that the systems of racially segregated schools found across the South violated the United States Constitution. This decision, now more than 50 years old, and the cases that followed it, forced major change, bringing an end to formal segregation in American schools. Still, children of color across the country are more likely to go to poorer schools with fewer resources, and our public schools are as segregated as they were before Brown.

The Supreme Court’s decision in two cases in 2007 retreat from the principles in Brown. The Court discouraged assigning students to public schools for the purpose of overcoming racial isolation, and went so far as to posit that racial diversity in schools was not a compelling state interest. Although a majority of the Justices agreed that some types of programs to promote diversity are constitutional, the Court’s decision poses a new barrier to efforts to overcome racial inequality in education.

The persistence of deep racial disparities in many areas of everyday life – such as which schools have resources or where we usually put garbage dumps – points to the need for strategies and policies to address systemic inequities.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to end discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. The idea was that no federal funds should be used for any programs or activities that discriminated. It helped transform American society and prohibited discrimination in public facilities, in government, and in employment. The 1964 Act was followed by additional civil rights laws beginning to address deeply entrenched ways of doing things that were discriminatory in areas like housing and voting. These laws were a good beginning but were not able in a brief time to end all discrimination.

The federal courts have also played a critical role in interpreting and enforcing these laws, but now their rulings threaten to limit their effectiveness. The Supreme Court, in a case called Alexander v. Sandoval, restricted the use of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ruling that victims of racial discrimination cannot bring their claims to court under the standards set out by federal agencies and used for decades. In the 2009 case Ricci v. DeStefano, the Supreme Court struck down the city of New Haven’s decision to set aside the results of a promotional test, made out of concern that the test had been administered in a discriminatory way. The Ricci decision may weaken public resolve to take a second look at and address unfair and discriminatory employment practices, such as the test administered to firefighters in New Haven.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has been sharply divided on fundamental constitutional issues, with many of the most important cases decided by one or two votes. On both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, who is on the court can make a difference. For example before joining the Supreme Court, Justice Alito’s record raised cause for concern. In 1997, in Bray v. Marriott Hotels. when Justice Alito was a circuit judge, he disagreed with his colleagues who ruled in favor of a Marriott Hotel employee who said she had been discriminated against on the basis of race, Justice Alito argued that her case shouldn’t even have been heard, based on reasoning that would have made it harder for victims of discrimination to prove their cases.

In Riley v. Taylor, James Taylor, an African American man, was convicted for felony murder, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. When he first challenged his conviction in federal court, Alito was the deciding vote in striking down Taylor’s claims that black potential jurors were rejected solely because of their race, that he had received an incompetent court appointed lawyer, and given a misled jury. Taylor’s claims were finally upheld, and it was found that his rights had in fact been violated. The majority of the court took offense at Alito’s earlier attempts to argue that statistical evidence about black jurors being repeatedly excluded from juries by the prosecution in death-penalty cases was like trying to explain why a disproportionate number of recent presidents were left-handed. The majority said that “[t]o suggest any comparability to the striking of jurors based on their race is to minimize the history of discrimination against prospective black jurors and black defendants….”

The federal courts continue to be an important place for people to challenge racial discrimination and to protect the vitality of our nation’s civil rights laws. Recently the Supreme Court narrowly upheld a key section of the Voting Rights Act from a challenge. At the same time, the Court’s decision raised questions about whether the longevity of the Voting Rights Act is at risk. New evidence of voting discrimination continues to emerge.

It is critical that the courthouse doors remain open to victims of discrimination. (Photo by frerieke.)

For more information:

  • Bray v. Marriott Hotels, 110 F.3d 986 (3d Cir. 1997).
  • Riley v. Taylor, 277 F.3d 261 (3d Cir. 2001).
  • Ricci v. DeStefano, 129 S.Ct. 2658 (2009).
  • Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
  • Meredith vs. Jefferson County Board of Education, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
  • Brown v. Board of Ed. of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kan., 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

See also some of our partner organizations that work in racial justice:

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Rights

lgbt3668802256_0d43123a25Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans still face extreme forms of prejudice in many areas of life and struggle for the most basic civil rights, including the fundamental right to marry and have families. Marriage as an institution comes with innumerable protections which many of us simply take for granted, from the ability to visit one’s loved ones in the hospital to tax and inheritance benefits. While an ever-increasing number of states have passed laws allowing for gay marriage or civil unions, a number of other states approved constitutional amendments restricting marriage only to heterosexual couples. Though these amendments were sold to the public as simply banning gay people from marriage, their ramifications were broader still. The amendment that passed in Michigan, for example, has already been used as a reason to strip lesbian and gay state employees of domestic-partner health-insurance benefits. In May 2004, an amendment to the US Constitution was proposed that would prohibit same-sex marriages in every state. While this legislation did not pass, the supporters of this amendment want to write discrimination into our Constitution.

Recently, there have been a number of important court decisions affecting the struggle of the LGBT community. Because laws specifically to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination have never existed at a federal level, many of these cases occur in state court and rely on widely varied state laws, and the decisions are very different from those handed down on other issues of civil rights. Federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, disability, and age. However, there is currently no federal law protecting individuals from various types of discrimination based on actual-or even perceived-sexual orientation or gender identity. Because of a lack of safeguards around this issue, countless LGBT Americans have been fired from their jobs, lost custody of their children, and been denied other opportunities such as a fair chance to housing or the right to serve in the military, all with very limited recourse. It was only in 2003 that the Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that private, consensual sexual relations between adults cannot be prohibited by the government.

While the past year has also seen a good amount of progress in states outlawing discrimination based on sexual or gender identity, the security of LGBT Americans remains precarious at best. Despite cultural changes and increased visibility around this issue, for each nomination of a federal judge known to be hostile to the rights of the gay community, we get farther and farther from the ability to protect our basic civil rights. (Photo by lighttripper.)

For more information:

Language Rights

language3124642885_3ee3cc9b5eIn America, people who don’t speak English as their first language can face both subtle and overt forms of discrimination. This discrimination can affect people’s access to health care, education, employment, the justice system, and many other areas of daily life. People with limited English proficiency used to be protected by civil rights laws that prevented discrimination based on national origin, but a few recent court rulings are making it harder and harder to enforce these basic rights.

Martha Sandoval lived in Alabama, a state with an “English-only” policy, and needed to get a state driver’s license. She could drive and could read the signs on the road in English, but she was not a fluent English speaker. When she was not allowed to take any part of her driving test in Spanish, Ms. Sandoval took her case to court, saying the state of Alabama had violated a basic civil rights law designed to prevent discrimination against people based on race or national origin in public places and programs.

Alexander v. Sandoval made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, which handed down a devastating ruling for civil rights. The Court ruled that no one could sue if that person could not prove intentional discrimination. Because Ms. Sandoval couldn’t prove that the state had intentionally discriminated against her by passing its English-only policy, she had no right to bring her case to court. Ms. Sandoval, and every person after her who is discriminated against because of the language they speak will no longer find help in the federal courts.

This case weakened civil rights laws that affect many areas of American life, but the impact of this case is strongest against those who are discriminated against based on national origin and the language they speak. Americans who aren’t given interpreters in hospitals and can’t be understood by their doctors, or can’t understand the questions being asked of them, have no recourse. Americans who are fired from their jobs for not speaking English-unrelated to their ability to perform their job-might not have any recourse. Even people who are denied interpreters in court will be unable to compel a state to provide them with an interpreter. The federal courts have slammed their doors shut on people for whom these issues can be matters of life and death. (Photo by upturnedface.)

For more information:

  • Alexander v. Sandoval (532 U.S. 275, 2001)
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Law of 1964

See also some of our partner organizations that work in language rights:

New York Immigration Coalition

Immigrants’ Rights

Federal courts have played an important role in protecting people, including immigrants, against discrimination. Just like people born in the United States, immigrants have also been able to seek redress in the courts when their rights are violated, though the system has been far from perfect.

Many of the rights in the Constitution apply to both immigrants and citizens. In the 1880s, California passed an ordinance that prohibited the operation of Laundromats in wooden buildings. Most of the laundries were owned by Chinese people, and the law was only enforced against them. In Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the Supreme Court held that the ordinance was a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1974, the Supreme Court held in Lau v. Nichols, that non-English speaking students were entitled to the same education as native English speakers. Then, in another important case, Plyler v. Doe, in 1982, the Supreme Court further held that undocumented immigrants were entitled to a free and equal K-12 public education. Additionally, Title VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination based on race or national origin.

The courts have continued to be instrumental in protecting the rights of immigrants today. The city of Hazelton, Pennsylvania passed legislation that ordered local businesses to investigate the immigration status of employees and tenants. If they didn’t comply with the law, those businesses were fined or denied permits. Several immigrants’ rights organizations (including our partners, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union) filed a lawsuit and in late 2006, a federal court issued a restraining order against the city prohibiting it from enforcing the law. It was a huge victory for immigrants. A District Court in Farmers Branch, Texas, is currently reviewing the same type of city ordinance.

But recently the courts have severely rolled back many important civil rights and made it harder for all people to bring civil rights lawsuits in federal courts. Many of these have involved the rights of immigrants.

For example, the Supreme Court has made it nearly impossible for undocumented workers to challenge unfair labor practices in the courts. When Jose Castro, an undocumented immigrant, began organizing a union campaign, his employer, Hoffman Plastics, fired him. The National Labor Relations Board found that Hoffman Plastics had violated federal law by firing him for unionizing and ordered the employer to pay him back pay. But in 2002, the Supreme Court in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. N.L.R.B. overruled that decision, holding Castro was not entitled to back pay because he was an undocumented worker. The Court said that workers who are not “lawfully entitled to be present and employed in the United States” did not have a right to receive any of their lost wages, even when the company that employs them violates the law. This case limits legal protection available for the many immigrants in this country who are working without documentation. Immediately following Hoffman, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that undocumented migrants do not have a right to back pay under the federal employment discrimination laws it enforces, including Title VII. The Hoffman decision has been expanded by courts to other statutes and has resulted in migrant plaintiffs being denied access to courts because their immigration status is often used against them in the course of litigation.

Immigrants who are discriminated against because of the language they speak are also being negatively impacted by the rollback in the courts. A 2001 case, Alexander v. Sandoval, has made it extremely difficult for immigrants and U.S. citizens to bring a lawsuit for discrimination based on race or national origin. The plaintiff in the case, Alabama resident Martha Sandoval, was not a fluent English speaker. She could drive and read road signs in English, but she wanted to take part of her driving test in Spanish. But Alabama had an “English only” policy that required her to take the test in English. She sued and the Supreme Court ruled that Martha Sandoval had no right to bring her case in court. The Court decided that private individuals could only sue to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if they can prove intentional discrimination, something almost impossible to do. This case is significant, not only because of its impact on non-English speakers, but because of the major rollback for people of color generally who can no longer challenge the adverse impacts of discriminatory actions by entities that receive federal funds.

While the federal courts have been rolling back rights for everyone, immigrants have been particularly affected. All of these cases are part of a larger backlash aimed at taking away the rights of immigrants. Besides limiting access to courts, many cases have made it much easier to detain and deport immigrants. The PATRIOT Act, adopted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, has given the attorney general and the administration more power to detain non-citizens who might be perceived as a threat to national security.

Right wing organizations have also been on the attack, succeeding in getting numerous laws passed in states across the country that discriminate against immigrants. There are English only policies, restricted housing and laws requiring police officers to question people about their legal status and notify federal immigration authorities, among others. In Kansas, a right wing group filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of college students alleging that undocumented immigrants who live in the state of Kansas should not be allowed to attend state universities for the price of in-state tuition. The students who brought the suit were residents of states outside of Kansas, and were paying the more expensive out-of-state tuition. They alleged that they were being discriminated against because the university allowed in-state residents who were living in the country without documentation to pay the in-state rate. In a victory for the immigrant students, the Tenth Circuit, in Day v. Bond, threw out the case, holding that the out-of-state students did not have standing to bring the claim. Though this is a positive case for immigrants’ rights, if the Supreme Court decides to hear the case the result could be short-lived. The Court may decide to reverse its decision in Plyler v. Doe. Regardless, the right wing groups have promised to carry on their anti-immigrant attacks using the courts as their weapon.

The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world. In 2006, there were 37.5 million immigrants living here. Like those who landed at Plymouth Rock, people come to this country for the promise of freedom, for opportunity. But if the courts continue to deny legal protection to newcomers, the promise etched into the Statue of Liberty will be deemed meaningless. (Photo by jvoves.)

For more information:

Housing Rights

Housing RightsThe Fair Housing Act, a landmark federal law passed in 1968 and amended several times since, aims to eliminate discrimination in the sale and rental of homes on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, and disability. Although the Fair Housing Act and its predecessor, the Housing Act of 1937, have enjoyed broad support through much of their history, the protections that they guarantee are threatened by recent court decisions that severely limit courtroom access to those experiencing housing discrimination.

Shelter is a basic and essential right that has implications for health, safety, employment, access to education, and financial security. Yet there is a shortage of affordable housing, and what little public housing is available can be unsafe and unhealthy. Some Public Housing Authorities are tangled and ineffective, and many people are victims of housing discrimination. People need access to the courts to remedy any unfair treatment and protect their rights and freedoms. Two recent rulings show how important it is to preserve the enforceability of federal fair housing protections.

In an important case, Langlois v. Abington Housing Authority (2002), a group of women in Massachusetts brought an action against their Public Housing Authority because its system for selecting who got housing assistance discriminated against people of color. These women argued that this violated the federal Fair Housing Act, and they took their case to court under a federal law that enables people to sue the state or local government if their federal rights are being violated. The housing authority tried to argue that these women couldn’t sue because although the Fair Housing Act prohibits unfair housing practices it doesn’t guarantee the right to fair housing.

In Thompson v. HUD (1994), the Maryland ACLU filed a case on behalf of African American residents of public housing in Baltimore. At that time, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was demolishing high-rise public housing developments in low-income African American neighborhoods and trying to confine replacement housing to similarly segregated neighborhoods, essentially perpetuating a system of racially segregated public housing. This, it was argued, also violated the federal protections of the Fair Housing Act.

In both these cases, the housing authorities tried to use an argument from an earlier, unrelated case-Gonzaga v. Doe-that has made it harder to go to court to enforce your rights under federal law. They argued that these people couldn’t sue because although the Fair Housing Act prohibits unfair housing practices it doesn’t guarantee the right to fair housing. Fortunately, the courts in these cases rejected these arguments. These two cases show how important it is to protect our civil rights laws from disappearing and to make sure that people can still get into a courtroom if their rights are violated. (Photo by Tony Webster.)

For more information

  • Our always-growing library of resources on housing rights
  • Langlois v. Abington Housing Authority (234 F. Supp. 2d 33 (1st Cir.), 2002)
  • Gonzaga v. Doe (536 U.S. 273, 2002)
  • Thompson v. HUD

See also some of our partner organizations that work in housing rights:

National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

Environmental Protection

Environmental Protection

tree497699534_c3925cac40Rulings in the federal courts concerning environmental protection can have incredibly wide-reaching impacts. The ultimate consequences of the decisions our courts make about the air we breathe, the water we drink, and our systems of nature affect us all.

In order to protect our environment and the American people, the federal government enacted several crucial safeguards: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. These laws constitute some our most important defenses against environmental destruction. In recent years, however, polluters and some of our political leaders have initiated concerted efforts to undermine and circumvent these safeguards. They are even making arguments in court saying that the federal government doesn’t have to pass these laws! Federal court judges are called upon to make decisions about these issues, and the rulings they make will influence the future of our country’s environment. As special-interest and big business groups continue their efforts to roll back laws that protect the environment, what kind of judges sit on federal courts becomes more and more important.

In 2004, in Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen, the Supreme Court considered a dispute dating back to 1982, when, due to overwhelming environmental and public health concerns, our federal government prohibited Mexican trucks from traveling more than 20 miles into this country. President Bush lifted that ban in 2001, and let the trucks roll in. Public interest and labor groups sued the Department of Transportation (DOT) for violating key environmental laws but the Supreme Court found that these laws did not need to be enforced, and ruled that the trucks can keep rolling in. The decision’s immediate environmental and public health implications might be very harmful, but the precedent it sets is disastrous: environmental law is being ignored.

Not all rulings are detrimental, however, and some decisions show the power of the courts to uphold environmental laws that have come under political assault. The New Source Review (NSR) rules of the Clean Air Act require the owners of large industrial facilities to adopt certain pollution control measures when they build new facilities or modify old ones. Although these rules have prevented the emission of at last 300 million tons of pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the current administration enacted a number of loophole exemptions that effectively crippled the NSR in 2002. So, the State of New York and a host of cities, towns, environmental groups, and other states filed suit against the EPA claiming that the exemptions violated the laws set forth by the Clean Air Act. Ruling in favor of New York and its co-plaintiffs, a federal court of appeals in 1998 helped to ensure that the new facilities would have to comply with Clean Air Act standards.

April 2007 brought another especially exciting victory for the environment. There is tremendous concern these days about global warming, both within the United States and around the world. In the first ever Supreme Court ruling on climate change, Massachusetts v. EPA, it was decided that the EPA does indeed have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in new cars. We as Americans can be hopeful that this decision is the beginning of a period of greater awareness of the consequences of our actions on our prized environmental resources.

However, many of our key laws protecting the environment remain at risk. In Rancho Viejo v. Norton (2003), Chief Justice John Roberts (when he served on an appeals court) wrote an opinion that, had he been in the majority, would have overturned the Endangered Species Act. In this case, Rancho Viejo, a California real-estate developer, wanted to build a 202-acre housing project. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service determined that this massive construction plan would wipe out an endangered species (the arroyo southwestern toad), and proposed an alternative plan. The developer refused and instead sued, trying to claim that the Endangered Species Act was unconstitutional. The developer lost the case. This case wasn’t so much about a lowly toad, as it was about whether Congress has to power to pass and enforce laws that provide oversight and protection of our environment, and not letting big developers do whatever they want unchecked.

The current Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases that seek to redefine these interpretations and challenge the power and constitutionality of this important federal statute. At the core of the two cases about “wetlands”-ecosystems essential for flood control, drinking water, agriculture, and wildlife-is also a large, key issue: Does the federal government’s (Congress’) have the power to carry out one of its most important functions of protecting Americans by ensuring national levels and standard for clean water?

As polluters and political leaders continue their efforts to roll back environmental laws in favor of special-interest groups and big business, what kind of judges sit on federal courts becomes more and more important. In 2003-2004, ten percent of the cases that came before the Supreme Court concerned the environment, and many of those cases were decided by one vote. If the composition of the Court changes dramatically, then, in the words of Doug Kendall, Executive Director of the Community Rights Counsel, “we could wake up one morning to find our fundamental environmental safeguards wiped out by a stroke of the Supreme Court’s pen.” (Photo by WTL photos.)

For more information:

  • Natural Resources Defense Council website
  • NPR on the Clean Water Act and the Supreme Court.
  • Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen (2004)
  • “Court Strikes Down Bush Rollbacks of Clean Air Act, Upholds Others: Court Admonishes Agency to Make Sure Surviving Portions of Rule Will Not Harm Public Health” (NRDC)
  • “What a Difference One Supreme Court Justice Makes”
  • “Prospective Supreme Court Vacancy Could Spell Environmental Disaster”
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council, “The EPA’s Changes to New Source Review The Bush administration’s proposal to weaken the Clean Air Act threatens public health, undermines state authority, and caves to polluters.”
  • The State of New York v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Rancho Viejo, LLC v. Norton, 334 F.3d 1158 (D.C. Cir. 2003 cert. denied)

See also some of our partner organizations that work in environmental protection:

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