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AAUW: Supreme Court makes key decisions


POTSDAM - The Supreme Court Justices may be enjoying their summer holidays, but the results of their decisions will reverberate through and shape American society for years to come. Some of these key decisions are:

Defense of Marriage Act: United States v. Windsor - In a 5–4 ruling, the court decided that a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the law that restricts federal recognition of same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

This ruling affects same-sex couples who are legally married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage who will now receive equal treatment under federal law with regard to the benefits of marriage such as health insurance, taxes, immigration sponsorship, student loans, and Social Security.

The federal government has already announced several changes to federal policies, such as access to health insurance. The fight for marriage equality now moves to the 37 states that do not currently allow marriage equality.

Proposition 8: Hollingsworth v. Perry – In another narrow 5–4 ruling, the justices found that the petitioners who were seeking to uphold the California ban on same-sex marriage did not have standing; therefore same-sex marriages can resume. This affects same-sex couples seeking to marry in California now that it is legal again and may help to open the door for marriage equality in other states.

Affirmative Action: Fisher v. University of Texas - In a 7–1 decision, the court upheld the use of race and ethnicity as one of many considerations that may be appropriate in school admissions, but only when that policy is “carefully crafted” and “narrowly tailored” to meet the school’s interest in a diverse student body.

Because the court’s decision was focused on the specifics of Fisher, it does not yet have broader implications. Justice Kennedy wrote that the University of Texas must now prove to the lower court that “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity” before using any race-based admission criteria to advance their diversity goal. The case now returns to the lower court, which will re-hear Fisher under a stricter standard.

Voting Rights Act: Shelby County v. Holder - The Supreme Court declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Before this decision, several states, counties, and townships (including some in New York City) identified by statute were required to have any changes to their voting laws reviewed and approved by the Justice Department and federal courts. In this section, Congress determined which jurisdictions require “preclearance” and identified jurisdictions with a history of voting suppression (such as literacy tests).

Nine states, primarily in the south, and several smaller jurisdictions that used to require preclearance will now be able to enforce changes to voting laws (such as ID requirements and redistricting, both of which disproportionately affected minority communities). This decision shifts the burden of proof to the aggrieved would-be voters to show the law has a discriminatory effect — rather than requiring the state to justify the change in the law. This will make it difficult to enforce the VRA, and virtually impossible to stop flawed voting laws which could have discriminatory impact before an election.

The implications of this ruling are profound. States and election authorities can now change voting requirements without having to prove they are not discriminating against voters. Would-be voters who fail to meet these new voting rules could be turned away unless they can prove in court that the new laws are discriminatory.

When political parties cannot persuade voters on the rightness of their policies and platforms, they often turn to suppressing voter turnout. One way they do that is through state voter-identification laws. At least 180 bills restricting voting rights were introduced in 41 state legislatures in 2011-12.

Several states, including Texas and North Carolina, have lost no time in drafting restrictions once the ruling came down for the bench. What legislatures can not control through redistricting, they often can accomplish via voter restriction. It is likely that women, the poor, and minorities will be among the first targets for more restrictive laws, depending on the make up of the state houses and executive mansions.

The only national recourse for action now rests with Congress to develop a bipartisan response that ensures equitable political participation and nondiscriminatory voting laws for all Americans. Given the gridlock in Washington, this is not likely to happen any time soon.

Workplace Harassment:Vance v. Ball State University - The court sided with Ball State by making it easier for employers to escape liability for discrimination and harassment in the workplace by a coworker. It limited the automatic employer liability to actions taken by a “supervisor” — defined as someone whom “the employer has empowered” to “take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a ‘significant change in employment status.’

All workers will have a much harder time proving workplace harassment and discrimination under Title VII. In order for the employer to be held liable, the worker must prove an employer-defined “supervisor” acted in a discriminatory manor.

Justice Ginsberg pointed out in the dissent that this decision significantly under-protects employees from harassment because some supervisors may lack the unilateral power to hire or fire but still exert considerable power over the day-to-day lives of their employees. And while members of Congress have expressed an interest in correcting this ruling through legislation, Congressional gridlock makes any quick remedy unlikely.

While AAUW is completely non-partisan, never supporting specific candidates for public office, it is an advocacy organization and does takes positions on public policy issues. That includes signing on with amicus briefs to court case that affect those issues.

Membership in the St. Lawrence County Branch is open to anyone who supports the mission of AAUW. AAUW advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research.

AAUW, with its nationwide network of more than 150,000 members and supporters, more than 1,000 branches conducting programs in communities across the country, and 500 college and university partners, has been a leading advocate for equity and education for women and their families since 1881.

For more information about AAUW in St. Lawrence County, contact President Jennifer Ball at 268- 4208 or or Public Policy Chair Kathleen Stein at 386-3812,, or visit the branch website,

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