US & Canada

Supreme Court: The state of civil rights in America

Wmoen celebrate in front of the Supreme Court
Image caption Proponents of gay marriage celebrated in front of the Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court this week made it more difficult to ensure voting access and recognised more benefits for gay couples. As the court comes to a close, was it a good week or a bad week for civil rights?

The Supreme Court has published its final opinion of this term, closing on what some are calling a banner note for civil rights.

The court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, opening the door for couples who are legally married in states that recognise gay marriage to receive the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples.

It also declined to rule on California's Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, deciding instead to send the case back to a lower court, which had already invalidated the ban.

Game director Jason Rubin echoed the thoughts of many when he tweeted: "Strike down of #DOMA and death of #Prop8 are big steps in the civil rights movement of my lifetime. I am proud to witness and support."

But the rulings related to gay marriage came just a day after other rulings - including one on the federal law that protects the rights of minority voters - had activists worried that civil rights could be in peril.

In the voting rights case, justices revisited the Voting Rights Act, a 50-year-old law designed to protect minority voters. In part, it requires jurisdictions in 15 US states to receive federal approval when changing election laws.

While the court did not invalidate the law, it did require that Congress update the formula used to determine which states needed monitoring.

"The ruling is a major blow to civil rights advocates as it is widely believed that Congress, which currently uses data from as far back as the 1970s to determine that formula, will not be able to pass a new formula into law," wrote Sahil Kapur at Talking Points Memo. "As a result, the ruling has the practical effect of neutering the pre-clearance requirement."

As the week comes to a close, we asked experts: was it a good one or a bad one for civil rights?

States' rights rule supreme

The rulings both speak to the rights of the states to determine and protect the rights of their citizens, whether it's the federal government deferring to states' definitions of marriage or the right of states to determine their own voting regulations.

"They both support the notion of a reduced federal voice and limited federal power," said Jose Gabilondo, professor of law at Florida International University.

That fits with the general direction of the court under Chief Justice John Roberts, which favours the rights of states and businesses over federal intervention, Mr Gabilondo said. The trend can dangerous for the rights of minority groups who often benefit from consistent federal protection, he said.

Still, making a blanket statement about civil rights can be difficult, in large part because there is seldom consistency within the world of civil rights, which is a fairly broad term applied to a multitude of topics.

"The term 'civil rights' is a broad umbrella that is applied to a lot of issues, but if you look at the various subsections, they all have a different history," said Andrew Cohen, a national correspondent for

"Voting rights is rooted in the Civil War, while gay rights is recent," with most changes coming in just a generation.

The long history of voting rights as a civil rights issue, in fact, might make it more of a target for attack than gay marriage, which is relatively new.

"The sense of urgency that accompanies the immediate achievement of civil rights victories fades over generations," said Seth Kreimer, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We have a generation of jurists emerging who have forgotten some of the reasons why predecessors made some of the decisions that they did."

Image caption Supporters of voting rights were more solemn

The Voting Rights Act's detractors say a formula created 40 years ago is useless in a world with a black president. There is a pervasive attitude that laws created to help rectify racism in the century after the Civil War have outworn their welcome, creating more of a burden than a benefit.

"Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," Justice Roberts wrote for the court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, said neutralising the Voting Rights Act was akin to "throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet".

Political pressure

By contrast, gay marriage is a civil rights issue that has moved with lightning speed, from being written off as impossible in the 1990s to being a defining issue of the gay community today.

Support for gay marriage, which now polls above 50% nationwide, also may have come into play.

"The Roberts court couldn't afford to look like a fossil," Mr Gabilondo said.

"The only thing the Supreme Court has is appearing credible. That means they have to be very nuanced, very hedged, very political."

But the small steps he sees the court taking have him concerned about civil liberties overall - especially considering some of the less-publicised decisions, like Vance v Ball State University, which narrowed the definition of who could be called a "supervisor" when workers sue for discrimination or harassment.

"That's not a civil right, but it's a proxy for power, abuse and structural inequality in society," he said.

Mr Kreimer, on the other hand, sees reasons for civil rights supporters to be hopeful, including another voting rights case, Arizona v Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, which upheld voting rights for Native American populations.

"The losses are losses that can be remedied, and the wins are wins that mark a way upward in American society," he said.

Of course, it is hard to predict the temperament of a court that so often changes.

"It's a fluid situation," said Mr Cohen. "In five years, it's very likely the make-up of the court will be different."

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