Supreme Court Benchmarks
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The nine Supreme Court justices recessed for the summer yesterday. They came down with fewer decisions overall this term, which began in October, than any court since the early 1950′s, but the rulings they did make touched on key areas of social and political dispute.
In the area of civil rights, the court defined equal treatment under the law in three major decisions. The first, U.S. V. Virginia, involved the state-run Virginia Military Institute, VMI, and whether its “men-only” admission policy was unconstitutional. Correspondent Tom Bearden filed this report on the case.
TOM BEARDEN: The five year old legal battle over the male-only tradition at the Virginia Military Institute or VMI has entered its final phase. Today the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether it is constitutional for a state to spend tax dollars to pay for schools that admit only members of one sex. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley in historic Lexington, Virginia, VMI has admitted only men during its entire 156-year existence.
SPOKESMAN: You made a mistake. You correct it. You understand?
TOM BEARDEN: Intense and unrelenting harassment is an integral part of the daily routine for VMI underclassmen, so called “rat” cadets. It is physically and mentally challenging. Superintendent Major Josiah Bunting explains why VMI would prefer women not be part of that.
MAJ. GEN. JOSIAH BUNTING, Superintendent VMI: We believe that to introduce young women into such a culture as that would materially change the chemistry, and we think that to put what we are now at hazard in order to accomplish that simply is not an appropriate use of our resources.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Last month, the court ruled that the state of Virginia cannot justify keeping women out of VMI. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “Women seeking and fit for a VMI quality education cannot be offered anything less under the state’s obligation to afford them genuinely equal protection.”
The lone dissenter was Justice Antonin Scalia, who objected that with this decision, “reversion to single-sex education is prohibited nationwide, not by democratic processes but by order of this court.” In another high profile civil rights case, the court considered a Colorado constitutional amendment on gay rights. Tom Bearden reported on the controversy over that amendment, which voters approved in 1992.
DEMONSTRATORS: (chanting) Hey, Hey, ho, ho, Amendment 2 has got to go.
TOM BEARDEN: The amendment that has attracted all this national attention states that no laws can be enacted which provide gays with protected status, quota preferences or a claim of discrimination. Kevin Tebedo, who heads Coloradans for Family Values, the group which pushed the measure onto the ballot, says the amendment was not intended to hurt gays. He says it was meant to ensure that gays not be given special privileges.
KEVIN TEBEDO, Coloradans for Family Values: The people in the state do not want to give homosexuals protected class. They believe they already have equal rights, and they do, and we’ve not removed any rights that any Colorado citizen had prior to Amendment 2. And they don’t have–they have the same rights they always have had right now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But the Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the Colorado Supreme court in holding Amendment 2 invalid. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A state cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws. In two other civil rights cases, the court looked at the congressional redistricting plans of Texas and North Carolina. Correspondent Kwame Holman reported on that.
KWAME HOLMAN: (June 13) Nearly all the blacks and Hispanics who first elected to the House of Representatives in 1992 came from congressional districts specifically drawn to include a majority of minority voters. The districts were drawn as a way of complying with changes in the Voting Rights Act. In North Carolina, Duke University Law Professor Robinson Everett filed a suit claiming majority minority districts deprive white voters of their constitutional rights.
ROBINSON EVERETT, Duke University: It was a use of racial classifications in a way that tended to divide the North Carolina population into different racial blocks, and that really offended me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Everett. Last month it ruled that legislative districts drawn to increase the representation of racial and ethnic minorities are unconstitutional if race was too dominant a factor in their design. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority: “Race-neutral, traditional districting considerations must predominate over racial ones.”
Justice John Paul Stevens dissented: “The court’s aggressive supervision of state action designed to accommodate the political concerns of historically disadvantaged minority groups is seriously misguided,” he said. The court also ruled on several important First Amendment cases. It struck down as unconstitutional a key provision of Congress’s effort in a 1992 law to protect children against sexually offensive and explicit material on cable television, and in a Colorado campaign spending case, the Justices ruled on how far the First Amendment goes to protect political free speech. Kwame Holman reported.
KWAME HOLMAN: Currently all candidates in this country for Congress or the presidency must adhere to contribution and spending limits set by the Federal Election Commission. But the constitutionality of the FEC limits now is being called into question thanks to a spending dispute that erupted between two other Colorado Senate candidates a decade ago.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At issue was how much political parties can spend if they are acting independently of the candidates. The court ruled they can spend as much as they want. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority decision: “We do not see how a Constitution that grants to individuals, candidates and ordinary political committees the right to make unlimited independent expenditures could deny the same right to political parties.” And in criminal cases, the court took a pro-prosecution line on the issue of asset forfeiture. Correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reported:
JEFFREY KAYE: In 1992, Charles Wesley Arlt and James Elyu Wren were convicted of violating federal drug and money laundering laws. The men were sentenced to life in prison, but the government deprived them of more than their liberty.
CHARLES WESLEY ARLT, Defendant: They took everything we had. We didn’t hide a dime. Every transaction was done by the law.
JAMES ELYU WREN, Defendant: The government took vehicles, automobiles, and they took aircraft.
JEFFREY KAYE: After the men were indicted on criminal charges, the government filed a civil forfeiture suit in order to confiscate their property. Wren’s lawyer Shawn Perez says the government punished the men twice for the same crime. That was double jeopardy, says Perez, a violation of the Constitution’s 5th Amendment. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But the Supreme Court overturned that court of appeals ruling, as well as one in Michigan in another forfeiture case. Writing for an eight to one majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, “Civil forfeitures, we hold, do not constitute punishment for purposes of the double jeopardy clause.”