Supreme Court Watch
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was a busy day at the court today with a decision expanding the reach of the sex discrimination law called Title IX, and an argument on a case with wide implications for the future of the Internet. NewsHour regular and Chicago Tribune reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg was there and now she’s here.
Welcome, Jan. This Title IX case first. It started with an Alabama high school basketball coach named Roderick Jackson. Tell us about his story
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, in December of 2000, he began complaining to his supervisors at his school that his girls’ team was just not being treated fairly. It was being treated not in an equal way to the boys’ team. He said that the girls had to practice in an unheated gym or wait until the boys’ team was finished for the night; that the girls couldn’t take a school bus to games they had away at other schools unless the boys were going, too.
Even with equipment, which you wouldn’t think would be a big expense in basketball, the school one year only provided two basketballs to his team, and one of them had to share with the visiting team when it was on its court. So he started complaining. He wrote letter after letter. He took it to the school’s athletic director and all the way up the chain of command. But he said that the school, instead of actually improving conditions for his girls’ team started giving him negative work evaluations. And at the end of the day in May of 2001, the school fired him as the girls’ basketball coach. So he sued.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Title IX clearly bars sex discrimination in education, in schools that have federally – federal financing. But this case really goes to whether it also protects whistle-blowers, right? The person who wasn’t particularly discriminated against himself but called attention to it.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. Of course, Congress passed Title IX in 1972, and it was designed to ensure a more equal treatment, and it’s really had a tremendous impact, many say, in giving girls equal access to the playing fields, but this case was different. This wasn’t a girl or a victim of sex discrimination.
It was obviously a coach who was saying that because he complained and was retaliated against he should be able to turn to that federal law, which its words say prohibits discrimination because of sex. Now, the lower courts didn’t buy his claim. They threw his case out and said that the law didn’t anticipate or provide for this kind of private lawsuit, that Congress simply never intended for the law to be so broad.
JEFFREY BROWN: But today the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, 5-4 opinion by Justice O’Connor. What was the reasoning?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Justice O’Connor in her opinion said that Congress clearly intended for this kind of retaliation to be covered by this federal anti-discrimination law. She said that teachers and coaches are important to enforcing Title IX. They’re closer to the situation. They’re in a better place to complain about sex discrimination.
JEFFREY BROWN: They’re precisely the ones who might speak up in a case like that?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Exactly. And certainly that had come out in the oral argument that the sixth-grade girl or the ninth-grade girl might be afraid to complain. So the teachers and coaches, they’re closer to the situation, they’re the ones who frequently could complain and should complain. And the school should not be allowed to fire them if they make these complaints because that would discourage the kind of reporting that Congress wanted with Title IX.
So as a result, Justice O’Connor said in her opinion today, for the majority, Title IX comes into play here, and Congress intended for it to do so. So, Mr. Jackson now can take his case back to the lower court and proceed with his lawsuit.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right. In fact, it doesn’t resolve things for Mr. Jackson. It just lets him now go ahead and make his case.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The lower courts had thrown it out saying, even if these facts are true, you don’t have a case. Now, Justice Thomas wrote a very strong dissent. And he said, look, retaliation isn’t even in Title IX. There is nothing in the statute that refers to retaliation, whistle-blower.
Title IX says no discrimination because of sex, and Mr. Jackson was not being discriminated against because of sex or because of his sex. So therefore he would – he should not be able to turn to the federal courts and file this lawsuit. And that the court, according to Justice Thomas, was making a policy decision. It was setting up this enforcement mechanism. And that’s a role for Congress, not for the courts.
JEFFREY BROWN: And there is some sense that there are wider implications here? This was treated as a fairly important case in discrimination law?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Absolutely. And people on both sides of this issue said the ruling would be extraordinarily broad and have a broad impact. People who had argued that Mr. Jackson should be able to proceed, women’s groups say it was a tremendous victory for women and girls and will ensure that Title IX would have teeth and would have full effect.
People on the other side of the issue, the school boards who had said that there shouldn’t be a lawsuit here say this opens school boards and school districts up to enormous liability, many more people will be able to come in with a lawsuit and make their claim against school districts, and that was just unnecessary, that there hadn’t been a problem before. So today’s decision would have a dramatic impact on them.
But Mr. Jackson, who spoke with reporters by phone this afternoon, was obviously very happy, and he said he was just most of all so happy for his girls’ team. He’s now coaching in an interim basis. The school allowed him to come back and coach. So he said he was hopeful he can go back to the district court and now make his case.