Environmental Justice

plant812998737_45a72b02c5Fewer civil rights mean fewer clean neighborhoods. People used to be able to stop polluters from targeting their communities. Now the Supreme Court is allowing those polluters back in the communities.

In 2001, in South Camden, N.J., the federal court suspended a permit for a cement factory because of the unfair impact that this plant would have on its neighbors. South Camden already housed the region’s largest trash incinerator, a power plant, the county sewage treatment plant, and a radioactive waste site. The area also has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. The court said that the people who lived around the factory were made to bear more than their fair share of the problems of pollution, and were being discriminated against because of their race. At the time, the ruling seemed like a landmark in environmental justice.

Soon after this ruling, the Supreme Court decided another case, Alexander v. Sandoval, ruling that people can enforce their civil rights only if they can prove that discrimination was intentional, not just that it had a discriminatory impact on the basis of race or ethnicity. The Sandoval case took away one of our key weapons in the fight for environmental justice because intentional discrimination is almost impossible to prove in a court of law, even when it exists.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Sandoval had an impact on the struggle in South Camden since it effectively reversed the result in that case and left South Camden residents to find ways of proving that the decision to locate the cement plant in their community was intentionally discriminatory.

Similarly, in 2003, the community of Holly Springs, NC, had three active landfills. The county was preparing to create another landfill, one that would spread across 471 acres and be 280 feet tall. But the community of Holly Springs, NC, was tired of handling the trash of the entire county. The community believed in the environmental justice principal that because everyone in a community produces garbage, everyone should have to share the burden of getting rid of this garbage. Holly Springs produces very little of the county’s garbage but it was made to deal with almost all of garbage. Holly Springs is also home to the largest percentage of African Americans in the state.

The people of Holly Springs tried to fight this landfill in the federal courts. The court, citing the Sandoval case, said that if the community wanted to fight the landfill, they would have to prove intentional discrimination, because showing that they were bearing a disproportionate share of environmental hazards was no longer sufficient. (Photo by Brooke Anderson.)

For more information:

  • South Camden Citizens in Action v. NJDEP(254 F.Supp.2d 486, D.N.J 2003)
  • Alexander v. Sandoval (532 U.S. 275, 2001)
  • Franks v. Ross(F.Supp.2d 599, E.D.N.C 2003)
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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

  • The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment


There is no fundamental right to education in our country. Many people if asked to think of education and the courts can recall Brown v. Board of Education, one of the key legal victories for education. This landmark case ruled that the system of racial segregation in the schools in the South was not, in fact, equal and that it violated the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. This case, more than 50 years old, and a few that followed it, removed formal segregation from Southern schools, but our educational systems in the United States still remain unequal. Children of color and poor white children are more likely to go to poorer schools with fewer resources, even in the public schools. And our public schools are as segregated as they were when segregation was legal.

In 1973, in a case called San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, a group of parents challenged the way the city of San Antonio, TX, funded its schools, which was almost exclusively through property taxes. The parents who brought this case lived in a poor district and paid a greater percentage of their incomes to the school than individuals in the wealthier districts, but the school was still underfunded. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court dealt two blows to education. First, the court declared that there is no fundamental right to education in the United States. As a result, the Court then also ruled that funding schools unequally does not violate any law or any part of the Constitution.

After this case, children and parents were sometimes able to challenge racial discrimination in the schools under a law passed by Congress in 1964 if they could show that a school’s policy-such as a discriminatory discipline policy or tracking system-has a discriminatory effect on the children of a particular race or national origin. But in Alexander v. Sandoval, the Supreme Court ruled that parents and children can no longer bring cases to court. The courts will only take cases if it can be proved that policymakers had a discriminatory intent.

Because of recent federal court decisions, parents may no longer be able to challenge the exclusion of children of color from special school programs like gifted and talented programs, or challenge more students of color from being placed in special education classes, even when this is not an appropriate place for them. (Photo by iboy daniel).

For more information:

  • Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483, 1954)
  • San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (411 U.S. 980, 1973)

See also some of our partner organizations working in education:

Disability Rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990 to make sure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination. After a series of Supreme Court rulings, however, people who were discriminated against because of a intellectual, psychological, or physical impairment often were not able to prove that they were entitled to any protections at all under the ADA. The courts so narrowly defined who was a person “with a disability” under the law, that many people with epilepsy, diabetes, vision in only one eye, significant hearing impairments, and other conditions didn’t have protection from discrimination.
Fortunately, with the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, Congress took strong steps to restore the protection of the law to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. Unfortunately, though, the definition of disability is not the only issue affecting the rights of people with disabilities being addressed in the courts. For example, the Supreme Court also ruled that states are shielded from many claims of discrimination and have limited what awards that people can get if they successfully bring a case to court.

Before the ADA Amendments Act was passed, in a series of cases, the Supreme Court concluded that someone might not be considered a “person with a disability” under the ADA if that person used medication or devices that helped them with their impairment. Thus, a person with epilepsy controlled through medication or a person with a hearing impairment who used a hearing aid could be fired explicitly because of bias against disability, and it’s very likely that they would have no protection under the ADA because they couldn’t prove they had a disability under the narrow definition adopted by the courts.

There are many other ways in which it has become harder for people with disabilities to enforce their rights. For example, Patricia Garrett was transferred and demoted from her job as supervising nurse at the University of Alabama’s Medical Center hospital after being treated for breast cancer-even though she could still perform her job well. Ms. Garrett took her employer to court. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that state employers should be shielded from paying any lost wages or damages in employment discrimination suits brought under the ADA, even when it is clear that they have discriminated.

Sometimes the states still do have to comply with the ADA, at least for now. George Lane showed up for his court date at a Tennessee courthouse to discover that he needed to get to the second floor for his trial. But Mr. Lane uses a wheelchair and the courthouse had no elevator. At his first appearance, Mr. Lane crawled up the two flights of stairs to get to the courtroom. When he returned, however, he refused to go through such a humiliating experience again or to be or be carried up the stairs. Mr. Lane was arrested on the spot and jailed for failing to appear at his hearing. He later sued, claiming that the state had violated the ADA by failing to make the courthouse accessible or otherwise arranging for his trial to be held in a location that was wheelchair accessible. Building on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Garrett case, the state argued that individuals with disabilities should not be able to sue states for violating the ADA even if states discriminate in the way they provide public services. The Supreme Court ruled for Mr. Lane by a very narrow margin, showing how fragile our civil rights are. But it remains an open question whether the Supreme Court will allow lawsuits against the states for discriminating in the provision of other public services, aside from situations where courthouses are inaccessible.
In another case, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for families to seek appropriate educational services for their children with special needs. Pearl and Theodore Murphy believed that their son who has a disability was not receiving the kind of public education that’s guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). They sued their school district to force it to provide the education the boy needed and the court decided the case in their favor. Many families can’t afford to hire a lawyer, so the law allows families to request that school districts pay their fees and costs if they win the lawsuit under the IDEA, because getting children appropriate services is so important. Though the district and circuit courts granted the Murphy’s request, in 2006, the Supreme Court ruled against them. Through a narrow reading of the law, the majority of the Court decided that the costs of experts — needed to prove a case — could not be reimbursed. This decision makes it even more difficult for parents with limited resources to go to court to enforce their children’s rights to the education they need. If parents have to cover the cost of getting expert opinions in order to prove their case, many children won’t get appropriate services, just because their parents can’t afford the legal costs.

In yet another case, the Supreme Court removed a powerful incentive against discrimination: punitive damages awards in discrimination cases. Jeffrey Gorman, who uses a wheelchair, was arrested in Kansas City, Mo. The van that took him to the police station was not equipped to transport people with disabilities. Despite his protests, the officers removed Mr. Gorman from his chair and used the belt from his pants to strap him onto a bench in the back of the van. The belt broke during the ride, he fell, and Mr. Gorman was hurt and humiliated. He took the police department to court for not transporting him in an appropriate vehicle. The jury awarded Mr. Gorman 1.2 million dollars in punitive damages, an award meant to punish the police department for its discriminatory actions. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the ruling and said that punitive damages cannot be awarded in disability discrimination cases against government agencies. (Photo by Steve Rhodes)

For more information:

  • Our always-growing library of resources on disability rights
  • “Righting the ADA,” Report of the National Council on Disability
  • Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc. (527 U.S. 471, 1999)
  • Murphy v. United Parcel Service (527 U.S. 516, 1999)
  • Arlington Central School District v. Murphy (2006)
  • Albertson’s Inc., v. Kirkingburg (527 U.S. 555, 1999)
  • Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams (531 U.S. 356, 2002)
  • Bd. of Trustees of the Univ. of Alabama v. Garrett (531 U.S. 356, 2001)
  • Tennessee v. Lane (541 U.S. 509, 2004)
  • Barnes v. Gorman (536 U.S. 181, 2002)

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

  • Disability Rights Advocates
  • Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania
  • National Coalition for Disability Rights/ADA Watch
  • National Disability Rights Network

Children’s Rights

Our ability to enforce our children’s rights is being threatened. In many cases, people are being forced to use limited financial means to prove their rights are enforceable by court (including appealing incorrect decisions) before they are allowed to proceed with the facts of their cases and obtain justice for the violations of their rights.

The state of Florida has more than 15,000 foster children and its Department of Children and Families (DCF) has no place for many of them. By 2000, almost 20 percent of Florida’s foster homes were too crowded and children were often placed for long periods in “temporary” holding facilities. The DCF was also known to rent motel rooms to serve as housing for its foster children.

In August 2000, Children’s Rights-a national organization that ensures government child welfare systems follow the law-joined local Florida advocates in a federal class-action lawsuit against DCF to improve the foster system as a whole. The district court dismissed most of the claims before the case even made it to trial, because it believed that private individuals shouldn’t be able to interfere with a state system already in place. The state’s system allowed Florida’s dependency court to decide where children would be placed on an individual basis. Children’s Rights appealed the decision, but in May 2003, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal. The court held that each foster child could only seek relief from the harms they are suffering through separate dependency court cases-that they couldn’t sue as a group. Children’s Rights tried to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but the court refused to take the case. Florida’s broken system of foster care still remains unfixed.

In Georgia, foster children brought a class-action suit against the governor and other state entities for violating federal laws that require certain standards when administering foster care programs. The state of Georgia argued that children had no “federal right” to enforce the Adoption Assistance Act and Medical Assistance Provisions of Medicaid.

In Missouri, a trade organization for foster care agencies sued the directors of the Missouri Department of Social Services for not complying with the Child Welfare Act through refusing to adequately reimburse the costs incurred by childcare agencies in the state. The State of Missouri argued that foster care providers had no “federal right” to the payments at issue and thus could not bring their complaint into court.

Though the courts in these last two cases ruled in favor of children-and disagreed with the states-courts are increasingly recognizing these kinds of arguments. (Photo by Hansel5569.)

For more information:

  • http://www.childrensrights.org
  • Our always-growing library of resources about children’s rights

See also some of our partner organizations that work in children’s rights:

  • Children’s Rights
  • National Center for Youth Law