Tricia Perry of the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights spoke with Rachel Godsil, professor at Seton Hall School of Law and founding board member of the American Values Institute, about how discrimination can persist in a society that seeks to treat all people equally. Listen in as Godsil explains the concept of implicit bias and the role it may play in the justice system going forward.
In one of the most eagerly awaited decisions of the year, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to limit Congress’s authority to regulate corporate spending on election campaigns. Yesterday’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision reversed previous Court rulings and invalidated campaign finance reforms. It sparked a flurry of public criticism that is sure to continue for years to come.
The New York TimesRoom for Debate Blog printed an informative piece illustrating a wide range of reactions to the decision. Advocates for freedom of speech argue that the restriction on corporate spending was an infringement on free speech: Brooklyn Law School professor Joel M. Gora referred to yesterday as “a great day for the First Amendment.” Others claim that this decision represents a huge loss for the democratic process. Brennan Center for Justice Director Michael Waldman asserted that the Supreme Court “reached into the political process to hand unprecedented power to corporations.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, legal scholar and dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, reflected on the potential impact of this ruling in an interview with NCRCR in September:
“If the Supreme Court were to hold that contributions can’t be restricted then there will be the ability of wealthy corporations, wealthy individuals, to donate enormous amounts of money to get their candidates of choice elected. I think the Supreme Court was right in what it said in Buckley v. Valeo that large contributions inherently risk corruption and the appearance of corruption. And I think that’s very much what we’re going to see in the future, if even mega-corporations can spend tremendous amounts of money to change the outcome of elections.”
To what degree the influence of business interests will trump the interests of the American people remains to be seen. In any event, though, this ruling clearly reflects the important role the courts play in shaping our society.
A New Yorker named Kenneth Wallace lost his life from complications related to inhaling asbestos insulation. The asbestos insulation was present in the air-conditioning units he installed every day. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung diseases, and is closely associated with mesothelioma, an untreatable terminal cancer from which victims face a prolonged and agonizingly painful illness and certain death.
Mr. Wallace was a pipefitter who ran pipes to and from air conditioning units. The units he worked on were manufactured by York International. York had not issued any warnings against using asbestos insulation on pipes and fittings for its units. In fact, York employees themselves mixed and applied asbestos insulation to its pipes and fittings when installing or reinstalling York equipment. York neglected to warn anyone who worked with the equipment that there was dangerous asbestos in the air when it knew that asbestos insulation was being used.
After Mr. Wallace’s death, the New York Supreme Court awarded $5 million from York to Mr. Wallace’s estate because York had not warned of the dangers of the insulation. The current state law says that manufacturers have a duty to warn about all the dangers of all the components they know will be used with their products. Mr. Wallace’s award is based on York’s failure to meet this duty.
York is appealing the decision, however. The company is claiming that it is not responsible for warning employees like Mr. Wallace of the dangers of asbestos insulation used because it does not manufacture the insulation itself -- despite the fact that the law currently requires manufacturers and sellers to warn about the dangers of component parts, even if they didn’t manufacture them. An appeals court will soon be deciding whether manufacturers like York have a legal duty to warn consumers about all the dangers of their products.
Such a decision will not only affect Mr. Wallace’s estate. A decision in favor of York could lead they way to weakening protections in other states, as well. If the New York appeals court decides that York has no duty to warn about the dangers of the asbestos-laced insulation, people like Mr. Wallace (or his grieving family, after the fact) could be denied the ability to sue the manufacturers of products with component parts that put our lives at risk.
As this case illustrates, our rights are also at stake in state courts. Even the most technical and seemingly harmless or unrelated case can significantly affect our ability to get into court. Therefore, it is important to watch this issue. This case is not just about one man’s asbestos poisoning -- it is about public protection from dangerous products that affect us all.
Paula Z. Segal is a second year student at City University of New York
School of Law and a Haywood Burns Fellow in Civil and Human Rights.
Before law school, she taught English to Speakers of Other Languages
and continues to develop materials for ESOL instructors to connect
language and life skills. She is also working with the New York Civil
Liberties Union to reduce the school to prison pipeline and coordinates
the CUNY Street Law Team, which brings the law to New York City high
school students and community groups. For more on the school to prison
pipeline, go to http://www.nyclu.org/issues/youth-and-student-rights.
In the United States, being convicted of a felony offense can seriously impact your ability to vote. At one extreme, two states (Kentucky and Virginia) strip convicted felons of the right to vote for the rest of their lives. At the other end of the spectrum, two states (Maine and Vermont) allow incarcerated felons the right to vote while in prison. The remaining 46 states fall somewhere in the middle, generally restricting the right to vote while serving a prison sentence or on parole. Beyond denial of access to the democratic process, harsher state laws are problematic because of the ways in which they disproportionately disenfranchise populations of color.
This past week saw a significant court decision in the area of felony disenfranchisement. In a case first brought by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan in 1996, challenging his inability to vote while in prison, a federal appeals court ruled that the state of Washington’s law prohibiting incarcerated felons from voting is a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights law banning a series of electoral practices historically used to disenfranchise black voters. The state Attorney General has already announced his decision to appeal -- but if the ruling is “upheld by the Supreme Court, [it] would apply to all 48 states that ban voting by felons in prison or on supervision.”
The three-judge panel that issued the decision seemed to have been swayed by the argument that ample social science data showing that “minorities in Washington are stopped, arrested and convicted in such disproportionate rates that the ban on voting by incarcerated felons is inherently discriminatory.” Research by sociologists at the University of Washington found that “blacks are 70 percent more likely — and Latinos and Native Americans 50 percent more likely — than whites to be searched in traffic stops.” The research also concluded that, “blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, despite the fact that the ratio of arrests for violent crime among blacks and whites is less than four-to-one. One result of that: 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.”
According to the judge who wrote the majority opinion, the studies presented in the case "speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington's criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by 'factors independent of race.'” That translates into a disproportionate loss of voting rights.
Without waxing too poetic about the power of the court system, it is important to recognize the key role it plays in ensuring justice and equality for all. It will be interesting to watch this case as it moves forward; let’s hope that, in the end, our nation’s judges will choose democracy over discrimination.
Rio Grande City, South Texas. Four Hispanic men get into a car in a Wal-mart parking lot. A border patrol agent sees them, and he follows the truck. When he pulls up alongside the truck the driver looks at him but the passengers do not. The passengers are not talking to each other and are wearing their seatbelts. Allegedly, they are also “sweating pretty bad.” Apparently under the impression that looking Latino, sweating, wearing a seatbelt and not looking at passing border patrol agents constitutes grounds for stopping an automobile, Agent Victor Soliz pulls the car over and when it turns out that he is “right” and that some of the passengers are undocumented, the driver is charged with “unlawfully transporting undocumented aliens.”
The Fifth Circuit recently held that Agent Soliz’s search was not reasonable in a case called United States v. Rangel Portillo. Luckily for Rangel-Portillo, the passengers in his car were not “dirty and disheveled”--because nine years ago, the same court held that a border patrol stop was justified on that basis 160 miles from the border in an otherwise almost identical situation.
The court ultimately got this case right, but the problem of racial profiling against Latinos both near the border and just about everywhere else is growing, and wins such as Rangel-Portillo’s are rare. Because the untold number of stops that do not yield arrests aren’t regularly litigated, we may never know how many innocent Latino citizens are harassed in this manner. A recent survey by the Pew Center suggests that one in ten Latinos in the United States were pulled over and questioned about their immigration status in 2008. A long time ago the Supreme Court held that border patrol agents are not required to have the same probable cause that they must have everywhere else in order to stop and question drivers in the border region (within 100 miles of the border), and courts and agents have generally taken this to heart. According to the Supreme Court in 1975, while in the border zone, “Mexican appearance” is “a relevant factor” in deciding whether a border patrol agent can pull over any car she likes.
It is not that the logic is wrong. If you pull over every individual that “looks” Mexican, you’ll probably catch a lot of undocumented Mexicans. But you’ll also harass an awful lot of individuals who are here lawfully—and in the process violate the Constitution. This is happening around the country. The border patrol has long stood accused of racial profiling along the southern border, and in recent years, agents have started pulling the same tricks far away from Mexico -- along the Canadian border. Immigrants in upstate New York have reported being harassed in their hometowns by “roving patrols” of immigration agents, as well as being questioned without any probable cause while riding Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains.
The Fifth Circuit got its most recent case right, but our federal courts have a long way to go in combating racial profiling against its Latino population. Hopefully the Supreme Court—which eagerly, if disingenuously, proclaimed the importance of avoiding racial classification while striking down progressive attempts to encourage school integration in Seattle (“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” )—will reconsider its longstanding authorization for agents to consider the color of a driver’s skin when making traffic stops.
Phil Mayor is a second year law student at Harvard Law School where he
is an Editor for Amicus, the online supplement to the Harvard Civil
Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review. He also runs the Harvard
Immigration Project and sits on the boards of the Harvard Law chapters
of the ACLU and the American Constitution Society. Before law school,
Phil worked for three years as a legal assistant for Human Rights
Initiative of North Texas where he worked on asylum cases and
immigration cases for immigrant survivors of domestic violence. He
spent his first summer during law school working at LatinoJustice in
New York City.
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