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The Supreme Court and Equal Rights

The Constitution describes equal rights only in general terms. The courts, especially the Supreme Court, have had to decide how these consitutional guarantees apply to specific situations. Some Court decisions have supported and broadened equal rights, while other decisions have restricted them.

1857

In Scott v. Sandford (Dred Scott case), the Supreme Court holds that neither the States nor the national government has the power to confer citizenship on African Americans.

1868

The 14th Amendment is adopted. The Amendment includes the Equal Protection Clause and declares that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are American citizens.

1873

In Bradwell v. Illinois, the Court upholds a state law barring women from the practice of law.

1882

Chinese Exclusion Act passed.

1883

In the Civil Rights Cases, the Court rules that the 14th Amendment does not ban racial discrimination by private individuals or businesses.

1889

In Chae Chan Ping v. United States, the Court rules that the U.S. government's power to exclude aliens is incontrovertible.

1896

In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court rules that "separate but equal" facilities for different races are acceptable.

1938

Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada begins to chip away at the separate-but-equal doctrine. The Supreme Court orders Missouri to allow Gaines, an African-American student, to attend law school at the previously all-white University of Missouri or establish a comparable law school for blacks. Gaines is admitted to the University of Missouri.

1944

In Korematsu v. United States, the Court upholds the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

1954

The Court overturns Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education. The Justices hold that "separate but equal" public schools are unconstitutional and order that segregated school systems be phased out.

1961

President John F. Kennedy issues Executive Order 10925, which mandates that projects financed with federal funds "take affirmative action" to ensure that hiring and employment practices are free of racial bias.

1963

The Equal Pay Act makes it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than what a man would receive for the same job.

1964

Passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the most far-reaching of the Civil Rights Acts passed from 1957–1968 in outlawing discrimination.

1967

In Loving v. Virginia, the Court strikes down all state miscegenation laws.

1969

In Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, the Court rules that after 15 years the time for "all deliberate speed" (mandated in a 1955 ruling) in desegregating schools is over. Henceforth segregated school systems are unconstitutional.

1971

The Court sanctions busing in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

1971

Reed v. Reed is the first time the Court found sex-based classification to be unconstitutional. In its ruling the Court strikes down an Idaho law giving fathers preference over mothers in the administration of children's estates.

1978

In Regents of University of California v. Bakke, the Court holds that affirmative action is acceptable but strict quotas are not. This is meant to ensure that providing greater opportunities for minorities would not come at the expense of the rights of the majority.

1987

The Court finds, in Johnson v. Transporation Agency of Santa Clara County, that promoting a woman over a man does not violate the Equal Protection Clause nor Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It is also the first case the Court decides on preferential treatment on the basis of sex.

1988

In New York State Club Association v. City of New York, the Court upholds a law that stops most private clubs from denying membership to women.

1995

The Supreme Court begins to take a more conservative approach to affirmative action. In Adarand Constructors v. Pena it holds that henceforth all affirmative action cases will be reviewed under strict scrutiny—affirmative action programs must show that they serve some "compelling government interest."

1996

California adopts Proposition 209, which eliminates nearly all state affirmative action programs.

2003

The Supreme Court reevaluates affirmative action in two cases involving the University of Michigan. In Grutter v. Bollinger the Court holds that a state university may take race into account in admitting students. However, in Gratz v. Bollinger the Court holds that it may not blindly give extra weight to race in that process.

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