Analysis and Commentary on Civil Rights

Bringing Title IX to Bear on the Problem of Sexual Violence in Schools

In Part One of a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman discusses the application of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which effected a ban on sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funding. Grossman focuses especially on the recent case of Student v. Henderson Independent School District (HISD), in which a school district was sanctioned by a federal agency for failing to respond to a complaint of student-to-student sexual assault; and the legal standards that produced that result.

The Big 4-0: Title IX Puts a Fourth Decade Under Its Belt

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman, and Justia guest columnist and U. Pittsburgh law professor Deborah Brake comment on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal civil rights statute that bans sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs. Grossman and Brake focus on the area in which Title IX has had its biggest impact, athletics, and explain its impact on college women’s and high school girls’ opportunities in sports. They reveal the secrets of Title IX’s success, including its refusal to take current, status quo levels of girls’ and women’s interest in sports as fixed or natural and thus to cap opportunities at current levels. Grossman and Brake also comment on Title IX’s recent history, criticizing the George W. Bush Administration for undermining the law, and praising the Obama Administration for properly enforcing it. Finally, they describe the stumbling blocks that still remain when it comes to full Title IX enforcement.

Two More Nails in DOMA’s Coffin: Courts Invalidate Federal Law’s Rejection of Same-Sex Marriage

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on two recent rulings that invalidate applications of a federal law—the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—purporting to reject same-sex marriages. One ruling resolves a set of consolidated cases, and was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. That ruling is entitled Commonwealth v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The other ruling is Windsor v. U.S., a decision from a New York-based federal district court. After providing background on DOMA, Grossman analyzes the claims that were put forth in the cases that led to the two recent decisions, and argues that both courts were right to invalidate the applications of DOMA that were before them. She also discusses three U.S. Supreme Court precedents that are relevant to these issues.

Another Frontier: Connecticut’s High Court Recognizes a Cause of Action for Sexual-Orientation Harassment in the Workplace

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent important decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court. As Grossman explains, the case arose when a manufacturing company failed to take action to stop the ceaseless name-calling that the plaintiff endured in his workplace regarding his sexual orientation. Even worse than the slurs themselves, some of the plaintiff’s tormentors would say the slurs while standing right behind the plaintiff while he was operating heavy machinery. Grossman begins by sketching the legal landscape (federal and state) regarding sexual orientation discrimination, and then goes on to focus on the law of Connecticut, where the employer was located, and the result the Connecticut Supreme Court reached in the case. Grossman also questions why the employer took the case all the way up to Connecticut’s high court when the illegality of the acts involved was quite clear.

The Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act: Accommodating the Needs of Pregnant Working Women

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments upon the proposed Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act (PWFA), which was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. Grossman explains that, if the bill becomes law, it will guarantee pregnant women the right to reasonable accommodation when the short-term physical effects of pregnancy conflict with the demands of their job, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. Grossman explains the limited protections that federal law currently offers pregnant women, how even those protections have been narrowed by courts, and why further protections are needed. Grossman describes the holdings of relevant Supreme Court cases, explains the provisions of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and argues that the PDA’s protections are markedly insufficient, especially in light of the courts’ narrowing of pregnant women’s rights. Grossman concludes that the passage of the PWFA is urgently needed to ensure fair treatment for pregnant workers.

Why the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) Is Not the Solution to U.S. Cyber Attack Fears

Justia guest columnist Anjali Dalal, Postdoctoral Associate in Law and Google Fellow, Information Society Project at Yale Law School, comments on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Dalal argues that while cybersecurity is a very genuine concern for the U.S., CISPA’s approach is not the way to address that concern. Dalal makes four key points to support her thesis, contending that (1) CISPA could reach common, otherwise legal Internet activities; (2) that information received from private companies under CISPA could be used for purposes other than cybersecurity; (3) that CISPA appears to effect an end-run around the Fourth Amendment; and (4) that CISPA subordinates civil-liberties protections to national security concerns. Dalal also describes the next steps that we are likely to see in the battle over CISPA.

The EEOC Rules That Transgender Discrimination Is Sex Discrimination: The Reasoning Behind That Decision

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman explains the EEOC ruling that discrimination against a transgender individual is sex discrimination under Title VII and related law. Grossman begins by describing the facts of the case that led to the EEOC ruling, and then goes on to take a close look at the intersection of Title VII, transgenderism, and sexual-orientation discrimination. As Grossman explains, an amendment to Title VII that would directly protect gay and transgender people from discrimination has repeatedly been introduced in Congress, but has never passed. However, gay and transgender people have been able to find some protection against discrimination under Title VII itself, via the courts, including the Supreme Court, that have interpreted Title VII to prohibit gender stereotyping and sexual harassment.

Recent Supreme Court Rulings May Show Hostility to Civil Rights, Even on the Part of Almost All of the Court’s Liberals

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on two recent Supreme Court decisions that, he argues, may together show that almost the entire Supreme Court is hostile to civil rights claims. The first decision, handed down last week, is Filarsky v. Delia. There, the Court unanimously held that a part-time government employee who is alleged to have committed a federal civil rights violation enjoys qualified immunity. In the second decision, Minneci v. Pollard, which drew only one dissent and was handed down earlier this year, the Court also ruled in favor of a civil rights defendant. Focusing on the juxtaposition of the two rulings, Dorf argues, reveals a Court that selectively invokes principles of judicial restraint in a way that disserves civil rights.

The Lady in Red: Equal Pay Day and the Continuing Problem of Gender-Based Pay Discrimination

Today, on Equal Pay Day, Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on gender-based pay discrimination and the available remedies for it. Grossman covers the current status of the gender-based wage gap; the reasons why the gap persists and has proved difficult to remedy; and the efforts that have been made to bolster pay equality. Grossman first focuses on the clear evidence that pure discrimination plays a significant role in the wage gap. Then, Grossman discusses the roles that the Equal Pay Act and Title VII play, with respect to gender-based pay discrimination, and the unfortunate limitations of both laws. She also covers the more recent Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Obama signed into law during his first week in office. Finally, Grossman concludes by describing the key legal steps, procedural and substantive, that she argues should be taken in order to close the pay gap.

The Trial of the Century?

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner comments on the official beginning of the military commission proceedings against Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and his four co-defendants. As Mariner notes, the United States is seeking the death penalty against all five men, who are accused of a litany of crimes relating to the 9/11 attacks: terrorism, hijacking, murder, conspiracy, and intentionally causing serious bodily injury. Mohammad, as Mariner explains, has taken responsibility for the attacks, and the other four defendants are alleged to have played key organizational or financial roles in the attacks. Mariner argues that for the verdict in these cases to be seen as just, the defendants must be granted basic procedural guarantees and must face an impartial and independent tribunal. However, Mariner argues, neither the procedures that will be used, nor the tribunal itself, fit these requirements. In particular, Mariner emphasizes the key differences between judicial independence and military discipline, when it comes to the administration of justice, and urges that civilian courts, not courts-martial, should be the tribunals adjudicating these cases. She cites the Zacarias Moussaoui civilian trial as a success in showing that the civilian justice system can work well even in terrorism cases, and suggests that these cases, too, should have gone forward in the civilian justice system.

A Politically Moderate Constitutional Law Professor Examines the Gender Gap in This Presidential Election

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton takes very strong issue with Republicans’ current stances on issues that are of importance to women, such as contraception access, equal pay for equal work, violence against women, and child sex abuse. As a politically moderate woman herself, Hamilton notes that she would find it very difficult to support the package of views and proposals that the Party is offering voters this year. Interestingly, Hamilton observes that, had Rick Santorum never run for president, the other candidates and the voters might never have focused on these issues, and the issue of the economy might, instead, have dominated Republican speeches and stances in the run-up to the election. But because Santorum did run, Hamilton predicts that Mitt Romney, too, will face a very significant gender gap at the polls this year as he, too, is forced to address these issues—for female voters will likely be uncomfortable with some of his answers.

The Controversy Over Public Breastfeeding: Breast May Be Best, but Objectors Say Not in My Backyard (or Airplane)

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the law regarding public breastfeeding. She covers both of the potentially applicable types of laws: indecent exposure laws, and public accommodations laws. In addition, Grossman discusses a key New York decision regarding toplessness more generally; a decision based on a Wal-Mart employee’s telling a customer that she needed to either breastfeed her son in the bathroom, or leave the store; a decision based on a mother’s refusal to put a blanket over her baby’s head when she was breastfeeding on a Delta airplane, as it was waiting at the gate; and a Vermont law that establishes the right, in that state, to publicly breastfeed. In addition, Grossman notes the changing social mores regarding breastfeeding—illustrated by protests called “nurse-ins” that are often sparked, with the help of social media, when a woman’s attempt to breastfeed in public is shut down.

Sex Discrimination Claims Under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause: The Eleventh Circuit Bridges the Gap

Guest columnist and Justia editor David Kemp comments on a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which held that the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution protects transgender government employees from discrimination on the basis of their transgender identity, as part of its protection from discrimination based on gender. Kemp notes that the Fourteenth Amendment was implicated because the plaintiff’s employer—which fired her when she explained to her boss that she planned to transition from male to female—was a government agency. As Kemp explains, the resulting decision was a precedent both for the illegality of a firing based on gender non-conformity, and for the proposition that a firing like the plaintiff's violates the federal Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Kemp also discusses the Supreme Court precedent of Price Waterhouse, which established that an employer cannot legally force an employee to conform to stereotypes associated with his or her gender, and the question of what level of scrutiny courts will apply to discrimination claims arising out of transgender status.

Is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Indefensible? A Federal Court Says Yes, in Golinski v. OPM

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, holding that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. (As readers may know, DOMA defines a marriage as a union between a man and a woman, for purposes of federal law and federal benefits.) The court also held that statutory classifications based on sexual orientation should trigger heightened scrutiny from reviewing courts, and that an anti-same-sex marriage law cannot survive such scrutiny. Grossman provides background on DOMA, and describes the current impact of, and court challenges to, DOMA’s anti-same-sex marriage section. She also describes federal legislative and executive challenges to DOMA, and recaps California’s complicated history regarding same-sex marriage. In addition, she focuses on the interesting question of what level of heightened scrutiny (intermediate, strict, or other) courts will apply when reviewing cases alleging sexual-orientation discrimination. Grossman predicts that whether by repeal, administrative undercut, or judicial invalidation, DOMA is on its way out.

A Louisiana Federal District Court Judge Strikes Down a Law Banning Registered Sex Offenders From Accessing Facebook and Other Social-Networking Sites Was It The Right Call?

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent Louisiana federal district court decision striking down an extremely broad and vague law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing a large variety of websites. Hilden argues that the judge’s decision, which followed a bench trial, was plainly correct under First Amendment case law. Accordingly, she contends that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is likely using the law, which he signed, and the decision, which he has vowed to appeal, for political purposes. Hilden also raises the questions whether any law restricting Internet access for ex-offenders could pass muster; if so, what it might look like; and whether individual websites’ policing themselves—or creating separate sections for adults and children—might be part of the solution.

Chipping Away at the NDAA

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner discusses two recent steps toward limiting the scope of the detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the controversial, recently-passed federal statute regarding the military detention and trial of terrorist suspects. The first step was an Obama Administration policy directive that effectively negates an NDAA section that purports to require that non-citizens suspected of strong links to terrorism be held in military, not civilian, custody. The second step was the commencement of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Due Process Guarantee Act, which was introduced after the NDAA was enacted into law. As Mariner explains, the Due Process Guarantee Act would protect both citizens and lawful permanent residents arrested in the U.S. against being detained indefinitely under a military rationale. Moreover, the Act would set a baseline prohibition on indefinite military detention in such cases, allowing such detention to be used only when Congress explicitly provides for it. Mariner sees these steps as constituting progress, but contends that amending the NDAA itself would have been a better remedy—especially as a presidential directive can always be reversed by a future president.

The Supreme Court Agrees to Hear an Affirmative Action Case Will the Justices Honestly Confront the Issues?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the Supreme Court’s recent decision to review a case involving race-based affirmative action in higher education.  As Dorf explains, the Court has not resolved an affirmative-action case since 2003, and thus this new case will be especially closely watched.  Dorf discusses the affirmative action precedents that the Court has already handed down, including the famous Bakke case, and the University of Michigan cases, Gratz and Grutter—the impact of which, Dorf explains, has been modest.  The new case that the Court will review, Dorf explains, involves the University of Texas's admissions system—which offers admission to all Texas students who rank in the top ten percent of their high school class, and also adds consideration of race as one of a number of factors in admissions decisions.  Dorf describes the issues the Texas case raises, and predicts that the Court's opinions—on both sides—will necessarily lack candor, as both liberals and conservatives pay lip service to an ideal of colorblindness, but do not actually hew to that ideal.

A Federal Judge Thwarts Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by Ruling Bizarrely That Lactation Is Not Related to Pregnancy

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent case that was brought by a woman who alleged that she was fired because, after giving birth, she asked if she could pump breast milk in a back room at her workplace. The judge held that she did not have a right to do so, under either Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on gender, or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Grossman takes strong issue with the ruling, which reasoned oddly that lactation and pregnancy are somehow unrelated. Grossman notes that the lactation-discrimination conflict is part of a long-running war—involving employers, employees, insurance companies, state governments, and the federal government—about whether women, alone, should bear all the consequences, costs and hardships of reproduction, or whether their employers and/or others must play a part. In addition to the lactation-discrimination case, Grossman also covers prior cases involving contraceptive equity and infertility discrimination, as well as discussing the legal protections that woman can turn to when the reproductive process conflicts with work, and the role the EEOC has played in this area of law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Proposition 8: Three Key Elements of the Decision

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on several key aspects of the recent decision, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, holding that Proposition 8—the initiative constitutional amendment purporting to abolish gay marriage in California—violates equal protection. Hamilton focuses, in particular, on (1) the standing issue and the problems the initiative procedure raised; (2) the question whether Prop. 8 had any legitimate purpose, or was simply driven by animus toward gay people; and (3) why the U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to take the case.

The Beginning of the End of the Anti-Same-Sex-Marriage Movement

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the situation in Washington State, which is now poised to legalize same-sex marriage. Grossman contends that the Washington State situation is significant not only because Washington State will now become the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage, but also because—for the first time since the beginning of the same-sex marriage controversy—a state legislature will move from a statutory ban on same-sex marriage, to a statutory authorization of it. Grossman covers Washington State’s path through many different stages of the same-sex marriage controversy; the details of the bill passed by the Washington State senate; and the potential implications of the State of Washington’s experience for the same-sex marriage movement more generally.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb tea... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Befo... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has w... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of L... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Pra... more

David S. Kemp
David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record... more

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of... more

Ronald D. Rotunda
Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at... more