The Supreme Court and Equal Rights

Updated July 22, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

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.


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.


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.


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


Chinese Exclusion Act passed.


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


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


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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."


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


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.


Voting 5-4 in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, the Court rules that the federal law, known as Title IX, that forbids sex discrimination in schools and colleges also protects third-party “whistleblowers“ who file such complaints. “The statute is broadly worded: it does not require that the victim of the retaliation must also be the victim of the discrimination that is the subject of the original complaint,“ writes Justice O'Connor.


In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court strikes down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which established a formula for Congress to use when determining if a state or voting jurisdiction requires prior approval before changing its voting laws. Currently under Section 5 of the act nine—mostly Southern—states with a history of discrimination must get clearance from Congress before changing voting rules to make sure racial minorities are not negatively affected. While the 5–4 decision does not invalidate Section 5, it makes it toothless. Chief Justice John Roberts says the formula Congress now uses, which was written in 1965, has become outdated. "While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," he said in the majority opinion. In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg says, "Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the V.R.A." (Voting Rights Act).

In United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. In a 5 to 4 vote, the court ruled that DOMA violated the rights of gays and lesbians. The court also ruled that the law interferes with the states' rights to define marriage. It was the first case ever on the issue of gay marriage for the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. voted against striking it down as did Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. However, conservative-leaning Justice Anthony M. Kennedy voted with his liberal colleagues to overturn DOMA.


The Supreme Court rules, 6–2, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action to uphold a constitutional amendment that bans public universities and colleges in Michigan from implementing a race-sensitive admissions policy. The ruling does not address the state's affirmative action policy; instead, it confirms the constitutionality of the amendment process. Writing for the plurality, Justice Anthony Kennedy says, "This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it." In her 58-page biting dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor says, the Constitution "does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process. It does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently."


The Supreme Court votes in a 4-3 decision on June 23, 2016, that affirmative action is legal under the equal protection clause and should be upheld in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. The case was brought to the courts after a white female, Abigail Fisher, was rejected from the school in 2008. She believes that UT at Austin's method of race consideration does not meet the standards previously set by the Supreme Court and challenges the use of affirmative action in higher education.

2020 In a major 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court rules in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia that the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act extended to members of the LGBT community. This decision makes discrimination against LGBT people in housing and employment illegal. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion.
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