Civil rights in court spotlight

When the Supreme Court returns to the bench Monday for the second half of its annual term, justices will hear several cases that could make this the most important session for civil rights law in years.

These cases will further shape the court under Chief Justice John Roberts, which will end its third full session this summer.

"At the beginning of this term in October, I don't think many people thought it would be shaping up to be as significant as it is now in terms of civil rights cases," says Columbia University law professor Theodore Shaw, a former counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Among cases the justices will take up:

• A "reverse discrimination" claim that arose when a Connecticut city rejected results of a civil service test for firefighter promotions because whites scored disproportionately higher than blacks.

• A major voting rights dispute over whether the Department of Justice may still oversee state electoral law changes based on the states' history of bias after the nation elected its first African-American president.

• A long-running Arizona dispute over whether the state spends enough money to provide English-language classes for non-native speakers under U.S. education rules.

The justices' docket will present several other high-profile disputes, including one on when elected state judges should be disqualified from cases involving their big donors.

The court had been tentatively scheduled in March to hear the case of a Qatari citizen arrested in Peoria, Ill., and placed in a U.S. military prison as an "enemy combatant." The case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri challenges the president's authority to seize someone suspected of conspiring to engage in terrorism in the USA and lock him up without the usual due process of law.

The Obama administration obtained more time from the court to assess how to proceed with the case.

Congress and the White House are controlled by Democrats, so a court dominated by justices who lean to the right could emerge as the last bastion of conservatism, says Stanford University law professor Jeffrey Fisher, who argues regularly before the court. "Will the justices say, 'We should heed the winds of political change?' " he says, "Or will they say, 'It's even more important to protect certain conservative principles that are not popular right now?' "

The court is deeply divided on government policies that consider an individual's race.

In the firefighters case, city officials in New Haven, Conn., offered a written civil service test to firefighters seeking promotions. Of the 118 applicants for promotion to captain or lieutenant, 50 were racial minorities. No blacks and only two Hispanic applicants qualified for promotions based on their scores.

City officials said they feared that, if the results were certified, they would hurt black firefighters and the city would face bias lawsuits.

Eighteen candidates (17 white and one Hispanic) sued under the Constitution's equality guarantee and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. They said the results should not have been discarded. Lower courts rejected the case, saying there was no unlawful discrimination because the city threw out the results and no one received a promotion based on the test.

The voting rights case involves Congress' 2006 renewal of a landmark voting rights law and a provision that allows the Justice Department to screen electoral law changes in states and regions where, as the Justice Department says, race discrimination "has been most flagrant."

A utility district in Travis County, Texas, challenged the provision, known as Section 5, saying it infringes on state authority and is no longer needed. "The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when Section 5 was first enacted in 1965," district lawyers say. Section 5 covers nine states and several counties and municipalities, mostly in the South.

The English-language education case dates to 1992, when parents in Nogales, Ariz., at the Mexican border challenged the adequacy of Arizona's program for teaching English to students from Spanish-speaking homes. The legal question revolves around federal judges' intervention in state education funding.

As the term resumes, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said she plans to return to the bench. This month, she revealed that she had undergone surgery for pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease.

The slate of cases on divisive civil rights issues offers a reminder of the importance of each individual justice's vote.

Shaw says, "One of the things that these cases and this term could underscore is the lasting significance of Supreme Court appointments. Long after administrations have come and gone, their justices sit on the court."