Web Video: Supreme Court weighs in on accommodations for pregnant workers, Alabama redistricting

Mar. 26, 2015 AT 12:23 p.m. EDT

The Supreme Court released two significant decisions on Wednesday. In one, the court revived a lawsuit by a UPS worker who sued her employer after she was put on unpaid leave when she could not perform normal duties because she was pregnant. In another, the justices split 5-4 over voter redistricting in Alabama. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the cases.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: A busy day at the Supreme Court, where justices heard arguments over a high- profile environmental case. More on that in a moment.

First, we turn to two significant decisions, on the discrimination claim of a pregnant worker, and on the politics of race.

As always, joining us to explain her day at the court is NewsHour contributor Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.

I want to start in Alabama, because this redistricting case, which we talked about on this program some time ago…

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: We did.

GWEN IFILL: … during the arguments, were about how they decided to draw districts in Alabama and whether race was a factor.

Let’s look at these two maps. On the left is the way it is now and on the right is the much larger 7th District, which the complainants, the plaintiffs were saying had been drawn in order to put all the black voters in one area.

MARCIA COYLE: That was the claim, that this was a racial gerrymander, that black voters were packed into districts that were already minority-majority districts in order to make surrounding districts more white and Republican.

That, the claim, is unconstitutional racial gerrymander. A three-judge panel of a federal district court agreed with the state that it wasn’t racial gerrymander. And the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference brought an appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled today.

GWEN IFILL: Five to four.

MARCIA COYLE: Five to four.

And the opinion, written by Justice Breyer, found that the lower federal district court had made a number of errors. Two were probably key among the errors, first that the court, lower court, had examined the racial claim on the basis of the boundaries that were drawn by the state as a whole, instead of looking district by district as to what the legislature did here.

And, secondly, the — Justice Breyer said the lower court and the state legislature relied too heavily on trying to maintain the percentages of minority voters — the same percentage of minority voters that were approved in the old plan, believing that that was how it had to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which bars a — at the time a state like Alabama from diluting the influence of minority voters.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, Justice Breyer said today, asking the wrong question may well have led to the wrong answer. What did he mean by that?

MARCIA COYLE: He meant, instead of asking what percentages are needed to maintain the same number of minority voters in a district, the court and the legislature should have been asking, what percentage is needed to preserve the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice?

GWEN IFILL: And we should say briefly there was pretty strong pushback from the dissenting side of this, including from Justice Scalia.

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas wrote separate dissents.

Justice Scalia saw this as a much more sweeping decision than Justice Breyer presented it. He didn’t say exactly how it would play out, but he felt it had serious implications for the one-man — one-person one-vote fundamental principle in the Constitution.

Justice Thomas felt — he actually criticized the Department of Justice and special interest groups like the ACLU, saying that they had hijacked the Voting Rights Act, that this was simply a quest for the best racial quota.

GWEN IFILL: The second decision, which also Justice Breyer wrote, this time a 7-2 decision, had to do with another case we talked about here, which is whether an employee, as it happened, of UPS was discriminated against because of her pregnancy when they were making special accommodations for other — other employees.

In fact, Justice Breyer wrote, “Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”

So, what did the court — how did the court reason this through?

MARCIA COYLE: OK.

Well, UPS had three categories of employees who could get accommodations if they were not able to do their regular jobs, and pregnant workers were not in one — was not one of those three categories. Justice Breyer said today that pregnant workers like Peggy Young in this case could prevail in the lower courts if the pregnant worker showed she was denied an accommodation that had been offered to a non-pregnant worker similar in their ability or inability to work, and the employer could not come forward with a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the difference.

And that’s what Justice Breyer’s quote was about.

GWEN IFILL: He said, if you provide me with a reasonable reason, perhaps this could hold.

MARCIA COYLE: He said the lower court failed to ask the critical question of UPS: Why did you treat pregnant workers differently?

So, both the pregnant worker in this case and the challenges to Alabama’s redistricting plan get basically a redo in the lower courts.

GWEN IFILL: But this is considered, at least for now, a victory for the woman in this case and for women’s rights groups.

MARCIA COYLE: It is. Yes, it is.

The framework that Justice Breyer announced today is not a new one in discrimination cases, but he very clearly said what each side has to do in order to either prevail on a pregnancy discrimination claim or prevent being held liable for discrimination.

GWEN IFILL: Marcia Coyle of National Law Journal, thank you, as always.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.

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