This column contains a correction.
For communities of color, the U.S. Supreme Court has a checkered past. From Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld segregationist “separate but equal” laws, to Korematsu, which upheld the government’s ability to round up and detain Japanese Americans during World War II, to more recent decisions that made it easier for police to target black and Latino men for stop and frisk and eviscerated critical protections for voting rights, communities of color have plenty of reasons to be cynical about the Court. But the Court has also played a critical role in moving forward the rights of communities of color. This includes landmark decisions—such as Brown v. Board of Education—that overturned racist Jim Crow laws, as well as recent decisions that allowed individuals to challenge housing discrimination based on discriminatory effects or that prohibited police from searching a person’s cell phone without a warrant.
Beyond the decisions themselves, justices can use their platform to powerfully assert the value of the lives of people of color. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has emerged as a particularly strong voice on the bench, reflecting the experiences of communities of color in her powerful opinions and dissents. In a decision that allowed police to conduct illegal stops and searches as long as they find an existing warrant after the fact, Justice Sotomayor wrote in dissent, “[I]t is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny” and referenced “the talk” that parents of color must give their children about police interactions. She concluded that until the voices of people of color “matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.”
Supreme Court decisions have a direct impact on the lives of people of color, and the federal judges who decide those cases matter. Supreme Court justices and other federal judges are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. Since federal judges serve life tenures, presidents’ legacies live on for decades in whom they appoint. Therefore, it is critical that communities of color care about the Court—especially when they vote.
Last term’s cases affecting communities of color
The 2015-16 Supreme Court term offered several examples of why the Court matters to communities of color. As the Center for American Progress outlined in a recent column, the stakes were elevated by a vacancy that left only eight justices to decide key issues.
Immigration deadlock leaves 10 million lives in limbo
The Court deadlocked 4-4 in United States v. Texas, leaving an estimated 4 million immigrants who would have benefited from the president’s immigration actions vulnerable to deportation. More than 6.1 million U.S. citizens live with family members who continue to be at risk of deportation due to the Court’s deadlock. The Supreme Court has recently rejected the government’s request to rehear the case.*
Abortion decision secured access for millions
In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court invalidated two provisions of a Texas law that would have denied access to abortion care and reproductive health services for millions of women. The law had already shut down more than half of Texas’ clinics, requiring some women to drive hundreds of miles for abortion care. By striking down the law, the Court upheld the right to access abortion and reproductive health care for 2.5 million Latinas and 725,000 black women of reproductive age in Texas—and for more than 18 million women across 12 states with similar restrictive laws.
Making it easier for police to target people of color
Typically, a police stop without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing is illegal, and any evidence seized during the search cannot be used against the individual. In Utah v. Strieff, an officer illegally stopped Edward Strieff and discovered methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. After the illegal stop, the police officer discovered an arrest warrant against Strieff for a minor traffic offense. Despite the fact that the officer conducted an illegal stop, the Court ruled that the drugs and paraphernalia were admissible evidence against Strieff. Discovering a warrant after an illegal stop, the Court held, retroactively makes the stop legal.
The case could have severe consequences, even beyond green lighting racial profiling in communities where the number of arrest warrants is disproportionately high. Studies have found that disproportionately high numbers of interactions between the police and black people lead to increased instances of police misconduct and death.
Saving affirmative action for millions of students of color
Race-conscious admissions programs for higher education help ensure that all students have a fair shot at overcoming obstacles to educational opportunity. Even though 63 percent of Americans support affirmative action on college campuses, the University of Texas at Austin’s affirmative action program was challenged in the Court last term. The Court upheld the university’s admissions program, recognizing the value that diversity brings to the classroom and to the nation. The decision safeguarded a shot at educational opportunity for the 1.5 million students of color who will be graduating high school across the nation each year.
Next term’s cases and communities of color
Several of the Court’s upcoming cases grapple with systemic racism in the justice system. Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado concerns Miguel Pena-Rodriguez, who learned after his conviction that a juror made racist statements during deliberation. Colorado courts refused to grant him a new trial. Because most states have similar rules, the Court’s decision could have serious implications for the convictions of historically marginalized defendants by biased juries.
In Buck v. Davis, Duane Buck, a black man, was sentenced to death after his incompetent lawyers called an “expert” witness who testified that “Hispanics and black people” pose a greater risk to the public. Nevertheless, federal courts have refused to allow him to challenge his death sentence.
In Wells Fargo & Co. v. City of Miami, the Court will resolve a circuit split on the question of who has the right to sue mortgage lenders for racial discrimination in housing under the Fair Housing Act. Miami sued Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citigroup, alleging that the banks engaged in discriminatory lending practices toward black and Latino borrowers. An appeals court said the city can enforce the Fair Housing Act through the courts. The Supreme Court will hear the case soon, and its decision could answer important questions about a city’s ability to protect its residents from businesses that may prey on vulnerable communities.
Racial gerrymandering is returning to the Court for the third term in a row with cases from Virginia and North Carolina. In both cases, civil rights groups are criticizing the states for unconstitutionally packing black voters into particular districts to dilute their votes. A decision in those cases could have serious implications for other gerrymandered states.
Cases in the pipeline
There are also a number of cases that have not yet reached the Court but will undoubtedly have a significant impact on communities of color. In West Virginia v. EPA, 24 states are attacking President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which is aimed at reducing harmful emissions from power plants. The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently heard arguments in this case, which is critical to reducing the harmful effects of climate change that disproportionately affect communities of color. People of color account for 40 percent of the Americans who live near power plants where the effects of climate change are often most dramatic.
The Court will likely hear at least one of the recent federal cases invalidating voter suppression laws. Federal courts in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and North Dakota have all overturned voter ID laws for discriminating against voters of color, either intentionally or in effect. Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court split 4-4 on a case involving North Carolina’s voter ID law, which a lower court said targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision.” Voter ID laws disproportionately affect people of color, who are much less likely to have access to the kinds of photo identification the laws require.
The Supreme Court plays a central role in the daily lives of communities of color—whether via voting rights, police misconduct, abortion access, housing discrimination, or criminal justice. Because federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, elections have a major impact on who gets to become a federal judge or Supreme Court justice. People of color can use their voices and their votes to push for more jurists who can truly diversify the courts, which will bring a wider lens of experience that helps expand Americans’ understanding of justice, democracy, and rights.
Michele L. Jawando is the Vice President for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. Abby Bar-Lev Wiley is a Policy Analyst for the Legal Progress team at the Center.
* Correction, October 4, 2016: This column has been updated to reflect that the U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected the federal government’s request to rehear United States v. Texas.