Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Two Civil Rights Cases

By Mark Walsh — January 24, 2001 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in two cases that do not directly involve education but have potentially significant implications for the application of two federal civil rights laws to schools.

In a case involving the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the question before the court is whether individuals can bring private lawsuits enforcing federal regulations that prohibit discriminatory impacts in federally funded programs. Numerous private lawsuits involving educational programs cite such regulations.

In the second case, the court must decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires the PGA Tour to provide a special accommodation to Casey Martin, a professional golfer who cannot comply with the tour’s rule requiring participants to walk the golf course because of a painful circulatory disorder in his leg. The case has implications for high school and college athletics, where eligibility rules have been challenged by student athletes citing the ADA.

The disparate-impact discrimination case stems from a dispute over Alabama’s requirement that its driver’s test be administered only in English. Martha Sandoval, a Mexican immigrant with limited understanding of English, challenged the state’s policy as a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs receiving federal money.

There was no mention during the Jan. 16 arguments in Alexander v. Sandoval (Case No. 99-1908) of the state’s policy establishing English as Alabama’s official language, because the justices were focused on the underlying civil rights issues. Title VI of the 1964 statute bars only intentional discrimination, but most federal agencies, including the Department of Education, have issued regulations that extend its protections to disparate- impact bias.

Education Lawsuits

Many private suits alleging disparate-impact discrimination in education have cited the department’s Title VI regulations. For example, this month’s ruling by a New York state trial judge against the state’s system of school funding was based in part on the New York City plaintiffs’ arguments that they were suffering disparate effects based on race in violation of the Title VI regulations. (“N.Y. System of State Aid Thrown Out,” Jan. 17, 2001.)

Last year, a federal district judge in San Antonio allowed a lawsuit challenging the Texas high school graduation test to proceed based on the department’s regulations. Black and Hispanic students generally score lower on the exam than white students do.

“That regulation, in clear, unmistakable terms, prohibits a federally funded program from implementing policies that have a disparate impact on minorities,” U.S. District Judge Edward C. Prado said in the ruling last January. He went on to rule that minorities’ lower scores on the test did not rise to the level of illegal discrimination.

While most lower courts have allowed private lawsuits based on the disparate-impact regulations to proceed, the Supreme Court has never addressed the issue.

During oral arguments last week, a lawyer for the Clinton administration said such private suits were “an important complement to federal enforcement efforts.”

“For over 25 years, courts have afforded injunctive relief for violations of Title VI regulations,” said Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman, who was arguing on the side of Ms. Sandoval.

But the lawyer for the state of Alabama argued that private lawsuits under the Title VI regulations were a violation of state sovereignty.

“States are not run-of-the- mill civil defendants,” but are “co-equal sovereigns” with the federal government, Jeffrey S. Sutton said.

Rules of the Game

In the other case, the high court heard a lively argument Jan. 17 in PGA TourInc. v. Martin (No. 00-24) that touched on the rules of golf, baseball’s designated-hitter rule, and Little League baseball.

One question before the court is whether the professional-golf tour is a public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act with respect to tournament participants. The tour acknowledges that it is a “public entertainment” and must abide by the disabilities law regarding spectators, but it argues that it does not have to do so for golf professionals inside the ropes.

And even if the law applies to golfers, tour officials maintain, the tour should not have to alter its rules for Mr. Martin, who is seeking to use a cart on PGA Tour courses because of his leg disorder.

“The purpose of a professional sport is to determine who is the best in a defined set of tasks,” H. Bartow Farr, the lawyer for the PGA Tour, argued. “High school, college, and grade school sports have as part of their nature an educational or recreational side.”

Justice Antonin Scalia suggested to the lawyer for Mr. Martin that sports authorities know best about what constitute the fundamental rules of their game. He noted that pitchers in the American League do not have to bat, under the league’s designated-hitter rule, while National League pitchers are required to take a turn at the plate.

“Could a pitcher in the National League with a blood disorder say, ‘I shouldn’t have to bat’?” Justice Scalia asked. “All sports rules are silly rules, aren’t they?”

Deputy Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, arguing in support of Mr. Martin, said that any sports tournament or league, whether Little League or the pros, was covered by the ADA.

“The purpose of the disabilities act was to be inclusive,” she said.

In their legal briefs, both sides cited several cases in which high school student athletes have sued under the ADA over eligibility rules of state athletic associations. For example, some students with learning disabilities have sought waivers from state rules imposing age limits on participation in interscholastic athletics.

Opinions in both cases are expected by early summer.

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Two Civil Rights Cases


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