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Civil Rights Acts

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Description: A series of federal laws to ensure equal treatment of citizens who, because of membership in a particular group, suffered unequal treatment at the hands of the various states or individuals.


Significance: These laws, which were often the focus of challenges before the Supreme Court, attempted to protect the rights of African Americans, women, and other disadvantaged minorities from public and private discrimination.


Following the Civil War (1861-1865), Congress approved the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to ensure that former slaves were treated as U.S. citizens and possessed various rights commonly associated with freedom. Among these were the rights “to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.” Former slaves were to enjoy “full and equal benefits of the laws,” the same standards enjoyed by whites. In 1870 Congress outlawed conspiracies to deprive persons of their civil rights. In 1871 Congress prohibited individuals acting under the color of law to deprive persons of their civil rights and permitted aggrieved parties to sue for damages. Although southern states found many formal and informal ways to blunt the intent of Congress, parts of these statutes, codified as Title 42, sections 1981-1983, of the U.S. Code remain good law, and the Supreme Court upheld them during the 1960's. For example, in Monroe v. Pape (1961), the court relied on section 1983 to endorse a damage suit filed against police officers who unlawfully invaded a private home and subjected it to an illegal search. In United States v. Price (1966), the Court affirmed the use of sections 1981 and 1982 to prosecute private citizens who conspired to murder three civil rights workers in Mississippi, not only because public officials actively involved themselves in the conspiracy, but also because the conspiracy interfered with rights secured by the Constitution. That same day, the Court broadened the scope of these statutes to reach actions by private citizens, in United States v. Guest, a case that involved the murder of civil rights worker Lemuel Penn, because the conspiracy to murder Penn interfered with his right to interstate travel, secured by the Constitution. The Court also affirmed basic provisions of liberty mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1866. In Buchanan v. Warley (1917), the Court struck down a residential segregation ordinance passed by Louisville, Kentucky, because it violated the right of a black homeowner to make a contract to purchase a home in a white neighborhood, a contractual right explicitly guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act. However, the court refused to extend this right to purely private actions between individuals in Corrigan v. Buckley (1926), because the reach of federal civil rights laws to acts of discrimination by private individuals was limited. Although Reconstruction era statutes could and did protect minorities to some degree from discrimination by municipal and state governments, discriminatory actions by private citizens remained outside the scope of federal law and the enforcement power of the federal courts into the 1960's. Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited racial discrimination in privately owned places of public accommodation such as hotels, amusement parks, and trains. In the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the Court held that Congress had no constitutional authority to regulate the owners of private property in such a manner. The Fourteenth Amendment, for example, forbade discrimination by state laws, not acts of discrimination by private citizens. The result of this decision and others, such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which allowed state governments to use race to classify and regulate their citizens, permitted southern states to craft a legal system of racial apartheid enforced by law, augmented by customary private racial discrimination beyond the reach of federal law. Not until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's did Congress successfully pass further civil rights legislation.


Civil Rights Laws in the Civil Rights Era

Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1960 to deal with deprivation of voting rights of blacks by southern states and their white citizens. However, the major piece of legislation came in 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the cornerstone of modern federal civil rights law, contained a number of major provisions, including one outlawing acts of private discrimination by property owners whose businesses are associated with interstate commerce. In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964), the Court affirmed this provision and forbade a hotel owner to deny African Americans accommodation at his facility. In Katzenbach v. McClung (1964), the Court extended this provision to restaurant owners, who could no longer lawfully refuse service to persons because of their race. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also overturned the practice of racially segregating public facilities, such as swimming pools and public restrooms. States and municipalities could lose their federal funding for failure to desegregate their public accommodations. The Court affirmed the power of Congress to compel desegregation of public facilities in Daniel v. Paul (1969) and Tillman v. Wheaton-Haven Recreation Association (1973). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also broadened the federal approach to civil rights. Race, color, religion, and national origin appear among the enumerated list of classifications that cannot be used for discriminatory purposes. In matters of employment, sex became a suspect category under federal law. Title VII of the act also authorizes remedial policies in employment, commonly called affirmative action, and brought Court scrutiny to practices that led to gender and racial exclusion from employment opportunities. For example, in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), the Court challenged practices in hiring and promoting workers that had the effect (disparate impact) of placing black workers in lower-paying, racially segregated job categories. Otherwise race-neutral hiring and promotion practices were unlawful if they result in the continuation of practices rooted in historic discrimination. Indeed, in United States v. Paradise (1987), the Court extended this reasoning to its broadest conclusion. Where the evidence of past discrimination was so severe, and especially where state government was the author of the discrimination, the Court held that racially defined numerical goals (quotas) and adjustments in hiring and promotional exams could be employed as a temporary remedy to past race discrimination in hiring. Typically, however, the Court has been loathe to order promotional quotas and modify hiring practices. In Washington v. Davis (1976), the Court distinguished between the discriminatory result of a policy, which may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and be subject to judicial remedy, and discriminatory intent, which must be present to violate the Constitution and is much more difficult to prove. This hair-splitting made employment discrimination suits more difficult to bring. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Court affirmed Alan Bakke's claim that the affirmative action program for admission into a university program violated Section VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibited racial and ethnic preferences in programs receiving federal funds), because it did establish numerical quotas, thus violating Bakke's right to equal protection of the laws. Indeed, in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio (1989) and Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), the Court limited the application of statistical disparity (more whites or more men in high-paying positions) in bringing a Title VII case. The plaintiff had to account for size of the applicant pool, for example, and establish that the alleged discrimination occurred in the specific case, rather than infer it from a statistical pattern. In Martin v. Wilks (1989), the Court required parties bringing class-action suits challenging discriminatory hiring practices to identify those parties that might be injured by the Court's endorsing the plaintiff claims and join them to the suit. This procedure made challenging systematic employment discrimination more difficult. To instruct the Court, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which shifted the burden of proof back to the employer to show that patterns of discrimination were not caused by unlawful practices and eliminated the defense of “business necessity.” The overall thrust of the law was to ensure a broader, rather than a narrower, interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The relationship between sex discrimination and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has proven more elusive. Most plaintiffs bringing cases alleging unlawful or unconstitutional gender discrimination have used the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the Court has defined sexual harassment in the workplace as a violation of Title VII. In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), the Court held that quid pro quo sexual harassment violates the law and can occur even if the employee ultimately “submits” to sexual activity, in order to keep a job. Employees have a right to be free from a hostile workplace environment. In Harris v. Forklift Systems (1993), the Court defined hostile workplace environment to include a totality of circumstances including frequency and severity of offensive behavior. Women alleging a hostile workplace environment did not need to show that they were psychologically damaged by the offensive behavior or that it adversely affected their job performance. This ruling made it easier for women to bring harassment cases under Title VII because they do not have to humiliate themselves as psychologically damaged or incompetent to prevail in court.


Private and Housing Discrimination

Congress, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court have eliminated the legal basis for racial and gender discrimination in federal and state law. Because businesses operate in interstate commerce and are chartered under state law, they too have been brought under the scope of federal civil rights laws. Actions by private individuals in purely private situations have been harder to regulate. Groups of individuals, for example, seeking to preserve the racial uniformity of a neighborhood, created restrictive covenants, private contracts by which they agreed not to sell to certain people, typically blacks. Although the covenants themselves were “legal,” the court held in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) that they could not be enforced in court. If groups of private individuals, however, refused to sell or rent to insular minorities, current legal thinking placed their behavior beyond the scope of federal civil rights laws. That changed significantly in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968), in which the court nearly overturned the Civil Rights Cases by extending the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to cover the sale of a private home. An individual may not refuse to sell a home to a buyer because the buyer is black. In Runyon v. McCrary (1976), the power to regulate private contracts was extended to private schools, breathing new life into the 1866 Civil Rights Act. The Court, however, revisited this broadened interpretation in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union (1989) and severely limited the judicial enforcement, by holding that the Civil Rights Act ensures broad contract-making power but does not create an equally broad right of remedy if the contract is then abrogated. Along with the employment decisions that same term, the Patterson decision led Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1991. In keeping with the judicial spirit of the Jones decision, Congress further strengthened its claim to regulate private contracts in housing by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This act prohibited discrimination in advertising, financing, selling, or renting a house on the grounds of race, religion, or national origin. Amended in 1974 to include sex, this fair housing law primarily affects owners of apartment complexes and anyone buying or selling through a realtor. The Court has given the Civil Rights Act of 1968 a broad reading. In Trafficante v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (1972), it held that tenants in an apartment complex could sue owners who practiced racial discrimination in behalf of those who were denied leases. In Gladstone v. Village of Bellwood (1979), the Court held that a municipality could sue realtors who directed minorities to certain parts of town to buy or rent.



Further Reading

  • Henry J. Abraham and Barbara Perry's Freedom and the Court (7th ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) and Lee Epstein and Thomas Walker's Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Rights, Liberties, and Justice (3d ed., Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1998) provide context for and analysis of the Court's use of civil rights acts. More focused studies include John R. Howard's The Shifting Wind: The Supreme Court and Civil Rights from Reconstruction to Brown (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), which examines the fate of early civil rights acts, and Abraham Davis and Barbara Luck Graham's The Supreme Court, Race, and Civil Rights: From Marshall to Rehnquist (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995), which examines the apparent retreat on broadly interpreting civil rights laws in 1989, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Cass R. Sunstein's One Case at a Time: Judicial Minimalism and the Supreme Court (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999) offers a scathing critique of the Court for deciding civil rights cases too narrowly. Robert H. Birkby's The Court and Public Policy (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1983) examines the intersection of the court, laws, and bureaucracy. R. J. Johnston's Residential Segregation: The State and Constitutional Conflict in American Urban Areas (London: Academic Press, 1984) highlights how intentional and unintentional policies lead to racially defined housing patterns. Harold Hyman and William Wiecek's Equal Justice Under Law: Constitutional Development, 1835-1875 (New York: Harper & Row, 1982) remains the best overview of Reconstruction era civil rights laws.