Supreme Court Preparing To Wrap Up Term
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Here in Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court wraps up its term today with major opinions expected in some of the court's most controversial cases. At the top of the list is the New Haven firefighters race discrimination case, and it's possible we'll have a major shift in employment discrimination law. A similar shift is also possible in a campaign finance case, and in a third case, we'll get the test of the ability of the states to enforce their own consumer laws against nationally chartered banks.
NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Most closely watched today will be the resolution of the New Haven firefighters case - not just because it presents a variety of racially charged issues, but because it's an appeal from a lower court ruling joined by Supreme Court-nominee Sonia Sotomayor. So the opinion issue today has the potential to look like a repudiation of Sotomayor and to add fuel to what so far has been a pretty tiny fire of opposition to her nomination. The case involves the promotion exams at the New Haven Fire Department. Although both black and white firemen who took the exams passed, no African-American ranked high enough to win a promotion to lieutenant or captain. When the city saw those results, it held hearings, concluded the test was flawed, and decided to redo it.
But the white firefighters who'd scored highest and would have been promoted sued. They saw the city's action as a simple case of reverse discrimination. They'd studied hard for the test, scored highest, and they should have been promoted. The city countered that under the Civil Rights Act, a test with such racially disproportionate results would have made the city liable to a lawsuit from the minority firefighters.
Rather than face the liability and the probability that it would lose, the city said it decided to promote no one, to ditch the test, and to design a new one -in essence, a redo.
A federal appeals court panel that included Supreme Court Sotomayor ruled that under existing precedent, the city could do that. But when the case came to the Supreme Court, at oral argument, a majority of justices sounded skeptical and some outright hostile. Today, we'll see how the court resolves the matter and how far it goes in changing the rules of employment discrimination law.
A campaign regulation case has an equal potential for changing the legal landscape. Ultimately, at issue in the case could be the ban on campaign contributions from corporations and unions, a ban long upheld by the court. The case involves a blistering campaign attack documentary called "Hillary: The Movie," produced by a conservative group called Citizens United.
A federal appeals court ruled unanimously that under the McCain-Feingold Law, the movie could not be air via on-demand cable TV during the 30 days before a presidential primary. The reasons were many. The funders of the movie were not publically disclosed, as required by law, and the financing included money from for-profit corporations, a no-no under federal law.
Citizens United contends that those rules and others should not apply because the movie's a documentary entitled to First Amendment protection. And it urged the court to go further by overturning past decisions that upheld disclosure rules and restricted the flow of corporate and union money to campaigns.
Finally, today, the court is to resolve a case important to the mortgage foreclosure crisis. At issue is whether the states can enforce their own consumer protection laws against national banks located within the state's borders. New York, backed by all 49 other states, tends that federally chartered banks are not shielded from state enforcement of state consumer protection and anti-discrimination laws.
Three years ago, the New York attorney general sought information from national banks in New York about why they were giving lower interest rate mortgage to white borrowers than black and Hispanic borrowers. The banks, backed by the Bush administration, went to court to block New York's enforcement of its state laws. The lower courts agreed that federal law allows the federal government to preempt state enforcement actions. Now the Supreme Court will decide.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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