Court refuses to disturb major civil rights ruling

By HENRY J. RESKE, UPI Supreme Court Reporter  |  June 15, 1989
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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, stepping back from a dramatic break with precedent, voted unanimously Thursday to leave intact a major 1976 civil rights ruling.

The court's action came in a race discrimination case that had already been argued on other issues. However, the court announced last year it wanted to hear new arguments in the case to determine whether its 1976 Runyon vs. McCrary decision should be overturned.

The Runyon decision said that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 prohibits private schools from excluding qualified children solely because they are black. The ruling largely settled the debate over whether civil rights guarantees enacted after the Civil War protected blacks from discrimination by private entities as well as acts by government.

The 1866 law provides that all citizens 'shall have the same right to make and enforce contracts as is enjoyed by white citizens.'

The court plan to reconsider the 1976 ruling brought a firestorm of criticism from civil rights groups and some members of the court, who, in a rare public airing of discord, sharply criticized the conservative wing of the court.

However, in a 9-0 decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled Thursday that Ruynon should not be overturned.

'Some members of this court believe that Runyon was decided incorrectly, and others consider it correct on its own footing, but the question before us is whether it ought now to be overturned,' Kennedy wrote. 'We conclude after reargument that Runyon should not be overruled.'

Nonetheless, the decision by the court was another blow for civil rights law this term. The court, on a slim 5-4 vote, held that racial harrassment does not violate the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

'This type ofconduct, reprehensible though it be if true, is not actionable under (section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act), which covers only conduct at the initial formation of the contract and conduct which impairs the right to enforce contract obligations through legal process,' Kennedy said, noting that such conduct is unlawful under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Kennedy was joined in that part of the ruling by the rest of the emerging conservative wing of the court. The other members of that group are Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Byron White, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia.

Dissenting from that part of the decision, Justice William Brennan, joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, said, 'What the court declined to snatch away with one hand, it takes with the other.

'Though the court today reaffirms (section 1981's) applicability to private conduct, it simultaneously gives this landmark civil rights statute a needlessly cramped interpretation.'

The Supreme Court voted unanimously Thursday to leave intact a major 1976 civil rights ruling but, in another defeat for civil rights activists, refused to extend its reach to acts of racial harrassment.

The court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, decided 9-0 to leave intact its 1976 Runyon vs. McCrary ruling, despite having called for its reexamination just a year ago.

However, the court, on a 5-4 vote, limited application of the decision in a move Justice William Brennan described as 'needlessly cramped.'

The Runyon decision said the Civil Rights Act of 1866 prohibits private schools from excluding qualified children solely because they are black. The ruling largely settled the debate over whether civil rights guarantees enacted after the Civil War protected blacks from discrimination by private entities as well as acts by government.

The 1866 law provides that all citizens 'shall have the same right to make and enforce contracts as is enjoyed by white citizens.'

The court plan to reconsider the 1976 ruling brought a firestorm of criticism from civil rights groups and some members of the court, who, in a rare public airing of discord, sharply criticized the conservative wing of the court.

In his opinion, Kennedy acknowledged the split, writing, 'Some members of this court believe that Runyon was decided incorrectly, and others consider it correct on its own footing, but the question before us is whether it ought now to be overturned.'

In the end, Kennedy said, 'We conclude after reargument that Runyon should not be overruled.'

In other action Thursday, the justices:

-Ruled states cannot be sued for violating the constitutional rights of citizens in a case involving Michigan's reputed 'Red Squad,' a special state police unit that monitored college activists until it was declared unconstitutional in 1976.

-Upheld a California law that presumes a woman's husband to be the father of her child in a case brought by a man who had an affair with a married woman and later claimed to the father of her daughter.

-Affirmed a ruling that states can be held liable under the Superfund law for the costs of cleaning up hazardous waste sites in a case involving the state of Pennsylvania.

In the civil rights case, the majority in the 5-4 part of the ruling took pains to state that 'neither our words nor our decisions should be interpreted as signaling one inch of retreat from Congress' policy to forbid discrimination in the private, as well as public, sphere.'

Nonetheless, the decision that racial harrassment does not violate the 1866 law represented a conservative shift in the court's position on civil rights law.

'This type of conduct, reprehensible though it be if true, is not actionable under (section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act), which covers only conduct at the initial formation of the contract and conduct which impairs the right to enforce contract obligations through legal process,' Kennedy said, noting that such conduct is unlawful under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Kennedy was joined in that part of the ruling by the rest of the emerging conservative wing of the court -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Byron White, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia.

Dissenting from that part of the decision, Justice Brennan, joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, said, 'What the court declined to snatch away with one hand, it takes with the other.'

'Though the court today reaffirms (section 1981's) applicability to private conduct, it simultaneously gives this landmark civil rights statute a needlessly cramped interpretation,' he said.

Civil rights lawyers say no other federal law provides the same protections as Section 1981 in cases involving intentional racial discrimination by private persons. In many employment discrimination cases, for example, people may sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but that law is less comprehensive and offers no opportunity for a jury trial. In addition, it does not cover employers with fewer than 15 workers.

Section 1981 is broader and also provides for damages and compensation for the emotional pain caused by racial discrimination.

The court's ruling is the fourth blow to civil rights activists this term. In what is view as the conservative legacy of the Reagan administration, the court also has ruled against minority contract set-aside programs adopted by cities across the country, given whites wide opportunity to challenge affirmative action plans, and made it tougher to bring broad-based discrimination suits.

The court's ruling Thursday came in a case brought by Brenda Patterson, who appealed a ruling that racial harassment by an employer is not discrimination under Section 1981 of the 1866 law.

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