Our Thoughts on What’s Happening at the Supreme Court

Supreme Court of the United States, 2010

Photo by Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

July 08, 2013

Like many people, Supreme Court justices are off on their summer vacations, whether that involves getting ice cream in Annapolis or going big-game hunting. But before they left the courtroom, the justices released several decisions that will shape America in the coming years. We’ve compiled a list of major decisions from this term and analyzed their impact on AAUW’s public policy priorities.


United States v. Windsor
Defense of Marriage Act

Summary: In a 5–4 ruling, the court decided that a key part of DOMA, the law that restricts federal recognition of same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection clause of the constitution.

Whom it affects: Same-sex couples who are legally married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage will now receive equal treatment under federal law with regard to the benefits of marriage such as health insurance, taxes, immigration sponsorship, student loans, and Social Security.

AAUW’s position: AAUW supports marriage equality and signed on to an amicus brief urging the court to find DOMA unconstitutional.

Next steps: The federal government is exploring avenues to open benefits to same-sex couples and has already announced several changes, such as access to health insurance. The battle will now move to establishing marriage equality in the 37 states that do not allow same-sex marriage.


Hollingsworth v. Perry
Proposition 8

Summary: In a 5–4 ruling, the court found that the petitioners who were seeking to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage did not have standing; therefore same-sex marriages can resume in California.

Whom it affects: Same-sex couples seeking to marry in California.

AAUW’s position: AAUW of California opposed Proposition 8 in 2008.

Next steps: Same-sex marriage is legal again in California. It’s not yet clear how this ruling will apply to other states that ban same-sex marriage.


AAUW and several organizations rally on the Supremem Court steps.

In October 2012, organizations and individuals, including AAUW, rallied on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the University of Texas’ affirmative action policy.

Fisher v. University of Texas
Affirmative Action

Summary: In a 7–1 decision, the court upheld the use of race and ethnicity as one of many considerations that may be appropriate in school admissions, but only when that policy is “carefully crafted” and “narrowly tailored” to meet the school’s interest in a diverse student body.

Whom it affects: Because the court’s decision was focused on the specifics of Fisher, it does not yet have broader implications. Justice Kennedy wrote that the University of Texas must now prove to the lower court that “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity” before using any race-based admission criteria to advance their diversity goal.

AAUW’s position: AAUW signed on to an amicus brief supporting the university’s affirmative action policy.

Next steps: The case now returns to the lower court, which will re-hear Fisher under a stricter standard.


Shelby County v. Holder
Voting Rights Act

Summary: The court declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Before this decision several states, counties, and townships identified by statute were required to have any changes to their voting laws reviewed and approved by the Justice Department and federal courts. In this section, Congress determined which jurisdictions require “preclearance” and identified jurisdictions with a history of voting suppression (such as literacy tests). Nine states, primarily in the south, and several smaller jurisdictions that used to require preclearance will now be able to enforce changes to voting laws (such as ID requirements and redistricting, both of which disproportionately affected minority communities). Although other sections of the VRA still apply (such as Section 2, which protects the voting rights of any citizen regardless of race, color, or membership in a language-minority group), this decision shifts the burden of proof to the aggrieved would-be voters to show the law has a discriminatory effect — rather than requiring the state to justify the change in the law. This will make it difficult to enforce the VRA, and virtually impossible to stop flawed voting laws which could have discriminatory impact before an election.

Whom it affects: States and election authorities can now change voting requirements without having to prove they are not discriminating against voters. Would-be voters who fail to meet these new voting rules could be turned away unless they can prove in court that the new laws are discriminatory.

AAUW’s position: AAUW is dismayed by this decision and will work with Congress to develop a bipartisan response that ensures equitable political participation and nondiscriminatory voting laws for all Americans.

Next steps: Congress is unlikely to take immediate action, and many “preclearance” states have already proposed changes to their election procedures.


Vance v. Ball State University
Workplace Harassment

Summary: The court sided with Ball State by making it easier for employers to escape liability for discrimination and harassment in the workplace by a coworker. It limited the automatic employer liability to actions taken by a “supervisor” — defined as someone whom “the employer has empowered” to “take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a ‘significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.’”

Whom it affects: Workers will have a much harder time proving workplace harassment and discrimination under Title VII. In order for the employer to be held liable, the worker must prove an employer-defined “supervisor” acted in a discriminatory manor. As Justice Ginsberg pointed out in the dissent, this decision significantly under-protects employees from harassment because some supervisors may lack the unilateral power to hire or fire but still exert considerable power over the day-to-day lives of their employees. She said an “employee who confronts her harassing supervisor risks, for example, receiving an undesirable or unsafe work assignment or an unwanted transfer… Facing such dangers, she may be reluctant to blow the whistle on her superior.” Ginsberg said the standard for liability should have remained that “an employer is negligent … only if it knew or should have known the conduct but failed to take appropriate corrective action.”

AAUW’s position: AAUW opposes limits on workers’ ability to seek remedy for harassment and discrimination.

Next steps: Members of Congress have expressed interest in correcting this ruling through legislation.


The court’s next term promises to be just as interesting as this one. Between cases over abortion clinic access, medical abortion, campaign finance, legislative prayer, and affirmative action, as well as speculation about the retirement prospects of the justices, the court will continue to shape Americans’ lives and rights.

By:   |   July 08, 2013