By Mary Winter
Recent landmark rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court hint that, in the judicial sphere, gay rights may be the new civil rights, two legal experts told a gathering of state legislators Wednesday.
Lisa Soronen, executive director of the State and Local Legal Center in Washington, D.C., and Brian Johnson, deputy director of Senate research for the Georgia General Assembly, discussed four Supreme Court decisions affecting the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a University of Texas affirmative action case, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s Proposition 8.
Soronen’s organization helps state and local governments with litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court. Since 1983 the SLLC has filed more than 300 amicus briefs in the Supreme Court.
Representative Tommy Reynolds of Mississippi introduced Soronen and Johnson at a session entitled “Supreme Court Key Cases” at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual Legislative Summit at the Georgia World Congress Center.
The court expanded gay rights in two separate rulings. In the United States v. Windsor, the court struck down a part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented same-sex couples from filing joint federal tax returns or from covering their spouses on their health care plans. The court said the provision was unconstitutional because it stepped on states’ rights and it denied gays equal rights. In the second case involving gays, the court dismissed a suit challenging an earlier ruling on California’s Proposition 8, in effect upholding that court’s ruling that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantees gays the right to marry.
“Are gay rights the same as civil rights? That’s the big new question,” said Johnson. Expect courts to examine gay rights in light of the 14th Amendment, the Reconstruction Era legislation that gave former slaves citizenship and equal protection rights, he said. Johnson predicted “deep conversations” and debates will take place around the issue. States will also have to decide how they will allocate federal benefits such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to gay couples, he said.
SLLC’s Soronen focused more on the court’s decision to strike down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring states with histories of discrimination to get federal permission before changing election laws. In explaining the 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said the provision was outdated and violated state sovereignty.
Soronen said Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered a “beautiful and intelligent” dissent from the bench, alluding to “shameful” current examples of voter discrimination in some states, including one in which a city council simply cancelled an election when an African-American slate decided to run.
Soronen called the Voting Rights Act ruling “the beginning of something huge and new.” She predicted the country will see more lawsuits alleging voter discrimination and quicker response from the U.S. Department of Justice when states decide to implement new rules such as voter ID requirements, as Texas recently did.
The Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin case involved a white student who applied for admission based on the state’s affirmative action law. When she was denied, she sued, claiming the school’s use of race in admissions decisions violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to a lower court, but Soronen believes that in the future, affirmative action cases will be harder to win and that the recent decision was “a victory for those who want to take race out of the equation.”
The court’s recent path, she said, has some people wondering “if we’re seeing the end of the race-focused civil rights movement.”