The Supreme Court on Monday decided not to weigh in on a 17-year legal challenge by a group of American Indians who contend the Washington Redskins football moniker does not deserve trademark protection because it is racially offensive.
In sidestepping the controversy, the justices did not comment on Harjo v. Pro Football, Inc. The court's refusal to hear the case leaves in place an appeals court ruling that the plaintiffs waited too long to challenge the National Football League trademarks.
Susan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne-Hodulgee Muscogee, and other plaintiffs argued that U.S. trademark laws prohibit registration of a disparaging name. Their appeal was supported by more than 30 law professors, 13 psychology professors who are experts on stereotypes and discrimination, and the Social Justice Advocacy Group, a coalition of nonprofit and religious organizations.
The team was known as the Boston Braves until they adopted the Redskins moniker in 1933 to honor the team's head coach, an American Indian, according to attorneys for the team. The club moved to Washington, D.C., in 1937.
In 1992, Harjo filed suit to have the Redskins trademarks invalidated. She initially won when the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed that the name could be offensive to American Indians.
But the team challenged the decision in federal courts, and U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled, in part, that the challenge was made too long after the first trademark was issued in 1967.
When the plaintiffs appealed, the appeals court noted that the youngest of the plaintiffs was too young to have taken legal action in 1967 and sent the case back to Kollar-Kotelly.
Kollar-Kotelly again rejected the claim, saying that youngest plaintiff waited too long after turning 18 to join the suit. The appeals court upheld the decision in May.
However, the matter is not over. Another group of American Indians filed the same claim two years ago, but their case has been on hold pending the outcome of Harjo's lawsuit.
No court has ever commented on the claim that the Redskins name is racially offensive.
In other business, the court decided to hear the case of an Alabama man sentenced to death for killing a sheriff in 1979.
Billy Joe Magwood was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of Coffee County Sheriff Neil Grantham. But a federal judge overturned the sentence, ruling that Alabama had changed its laws to make Magwood's crime eligible for the death penalty.
A panel of judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed the ruling and reinstated the sentence.
Magwood then appealed the 11th Circuit decision to the Supreme Court.
From NPR staff and wire reports