Civil Rights

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Civil Rights

Personal liberties that belong to an individual, owing to his or her status as a citizen or resident of a particular country or community.

The most common legal application of the term civil rights involves the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens and residents by legislation and by the Constitution. Civil rights protected by the Constitution include Freedom of Speech and freedom from certain types of discrimination.

Not all types of discrimination are unlawful, and most of an individual's personal choices are protected by the freedoms to choose personal associates; to express himself or herself; and to preserve personal privacy. Civil rights legislation comes into play when the practice of personal preferences and prejudices of an individual, a business entity, or a government interferes with the protected rights of others. The various civil rights laws have made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, handicap, or national origin. Discrimination that interferes with voting rights and equality of opportunity in education, employment, and housing is unlawful.

The term Privileges and Immunities is related to civil rights. Privileges and immunities encompass all rights of individuals that relate to people, places, and real and Personal Property. Privileges include all of the legal benefits of living in the United States, such as the freedom to sell land, draft a will, or obtain a Divorce. Immunities are the protections afforded by law that prevent the government or other people from hindering another's enjoyment of his or her life, such as the right to be free from illegal searches and seizures and the freedom to practice religion without government persecution. The Privileges and Immunities Clause in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution states, "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States." The clause is designed to prevent each state from discriminating against the people in other states in favor of its own citizens.

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, delineates specific rights that are reserved for U.S. citizens and residents. No state can remove or abridge rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution.

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691, that the Constitution did not apply to African Americans because they were not citizens when the Constitution was written. After the Civil War, therefore, new laws were necessary for the purpose of extending civil liberties to the former slaves.

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted to make Slavery and other forms of Involuntary Servitude unlawful. In addition, Congress was given the power to enact laws that were necessary to enforce this new amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, provides that every individual who is born or naturalized in the United States is a citizen and ensures that a state may not deprive a citizen or resident of his or her civil rights, including Due Process of Law and Equal Protection of the laws. Congress is also empowered to enact laws for the enforcement of these rights.

The Origin of Federal Civil Rights Laws

During the period immediately following the Civil War, civil rights legislation was originally enacted by Congress, based upon its power under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to pass laws to enforce these rights. The first two of these laws were based upon the civil rights act of 1866 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1982), which had preceded the Fourteenth Amendment.

The first civil rights law guaranteed equal rights under the law for all people who lived within the jurisdiction of the United States. The second guaranteed each citizen an equal right to own, inherit, rent, purchase, and sell real property as well as personal property. The third original civil rights law, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (17 Stat. 13), provided citizens with the right to bring a civil action for a violation of protected rights. The fourth law made violation of such rights a criminal offense.

Subsequent Legislation

Although these initial laws purported to guarantee the civil rights of all citizens, including African Americans and other minorities, they were effectively negated for most African-Americans in the late nineteenth century by the passage of Jim Crow Laws, or Black Codes, in the South. These laws made it illegal for African-Americans to use the same public facilities as whites, restricted their travel, impeded their ability to vote, forbade interracial marriage, and generally relegated them to a legally inferior position.

In the 1896 landmark case plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Jim Crow law that required the Segregation, or separation, of the races on railroad cars. The Court held that the Louisiana law in question was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as the facilities that were provided for each race were "separate but equal." This separate-but-equal doctrine was used to support other segregation laws applying to public schools and public facilities.

No significant civil rights legislation was enacted until many decades later, when the Commission on Civil Rights was established by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1975) to monitor and collect facts regarding race relations for consideration by Congress and the president. Congress subsequently passed the Civil Rights Act of 1960 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1971). The statute guarantees that qualified voters have the right to register to vote in any state and that they have the right to sue any person who prevents them from doing so. Voters possess this right to sue regardless of whether the individual who so prevents them is a state official or merely an individual who acting as one.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2000a et seq.) is the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in the history of the United States. It contains provisions for parity in the use and enjoyment of public accommodations, facilities, and education, as well as federally assisted programs and employment. Title VII of that act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on an employee's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, is regarded as the most inclusive source of employment rights. All employers who have at least 15 employees, including state and local governments and labor unions, are subject to its provisions, but it does not apply to the federal government, American Indian tribes, clubs, or religious organizations.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 (25 U.S.C.A. § 1301 et seq.) proscribes discrimination in the sale and rental of most U.S. housing. It also prohibits discrimination in financing arrangements and extends to agents, brokers, and owners. Both the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Acts establish the right of an injured party to sue and to obtain damages from any individual who illegally infringes with a person's civil rights, conspires to deprive others of their civil rights, or abuses either government authority or public office to accomplish such unlawful acts.

In the area of education, a significant civil rights milestone was achieved in 1954 with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873. In Brown, the justices unanimously rejected the separate-but-equal doctrine that it had upheld in Plessy. They found that segregating black and white children in different public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Segregation, the Court held, effectively discriminates against African-American children by promoting in them a sense of inferiority that limits their opportunities in life. The Court also required that school districts desegregate "with all deliberate speed." Integration, or desegregation, of public schools has been a divisive issue ever since. In particular, arguments arise over the practice of busing students a distance to school, a method that has been used, often by court order, to create a better racial balance.

The issue of segregation continues to cause strife. In 2002, Senate Majority Leader trent lott (R.-Miss.) suggested during comments at the 100th birthday party of retired Senator strom thurmond that he was proud that the state of Mississippi had supported Thurmond in a presidential bid in 1948. Thurmond had run on the so-called "Dixiecrat" platform that advocated segregation. The comments caused a storm of criticism directed at Lott, and he resigned as senate majority leader in December 2002.

In employment, Common Law permits an employer or Labor Union to discriminate for a valid reason in its relations with employees, unless otherwise provided by federal or state statute. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.) initially restrained discrimination against employees or job applicants who engage in union activities. Subsequently, the act has been extended through various amendments to prohibit other forms of discrimination, including race and Sex Discrimination. In 1963, Congress enacted the Equal Pay Act (29 U.S.C.A. § 206), which requires that men and women be paid the same wages when they do substantially similar work. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the initial forum for claims of illegal employment discrimination. It also publishes advisory guidelines that explain or define the law. Many states have agencies or Human Rights commissions that are similar to the EEOC.

The 1980s and Beyond

One result of civil rights legislation is Affirmative Action, which is the effort to enforce race and sex classifications when necessary to correct past discriminatory patterns. The ordering of affirmative action requires employers or labor unions to make concerted efforts to hire minorities who traditionally have been discouraged from seeking employment with them. The basis for affirmative action is that if such efforts are not made, unlawful discrimination will be perpetuated.

Affirmative action and other attempts to end discrimination raise new questions. For example, have efforts to help minorities and women begun to infringe on the rights of individuals outside of those groups, such as white men? Some argue that affirmative action results in reverse discrimination, which is prejudice or bias practiced against a particular person or class of people in order to remedy a pattern of past discrimination against another individual or group of individuals.

Much of the attention on the constitutionality of affirmative action programs has focused upon the federal courts of appeals. The most heated controversy has centered on affirmative action programs in higher education. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hopwood v. Texas,78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996) held that a program at the University of Texas School of Law granting preferences to minorities in admissions decisions was unconstitutional. This case stirred a national debate, and several commentators noted that the percentage of minorities who were admitted to the school dropped markedly after the decision. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the decision to stand when it denied certioari.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified some of the confusion experienced by the lower federal courts with respect to affirmative action programs in higher education. In Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S.___, 123 S. Ct. 2325, ___ L. Ed. 2d ___ (2003), the Court upheld a practice by the law school at the University of Michigan that considered race one of the factors the school considered when admitting students. The ruling upheld the decision in board of regents of the university of california v. bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 98 S. Ct. 2733, 57 L. Ed. 2d 750 (1978), a controversial decision that had likewise allowed schools to consider race as a factor in admissions. In a companion case to Grutter, however the Court limited the scope of affirmative action programs of universities when it struck down Michigan's undergraduate admissions policies. Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. ___, 123 S. Ct. 2411, ___ L. Ed. 2d ___ (2003). Unlike the law school's admissions policies at Michigan, the undergraduate admissions department added a certain number of "points" to the application of a racial minority. Because the university added these points automatically without consideration of the individual applicant, the Court held that this policy could not pass constitutional muster.

After President ronald reagan appointed three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court during his two presidential terms between 1981 and 1989, the Court proceeded to render more conservative opinions regarding civil rights. For example, in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 109 S. Ct. 2363, 105 L. Ed. 2d 132 (1989), it addressed the issue of discrimination in the private sector and held that section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 barred only racial discrimination in hiring, and thus not racial harassment while on the job. Minority-rights groups were disappointed by the ruling and saw it as part of a general trend toward making civil rights violations more difficult to prove. However, Justice anthony m. kennedy, who wrote the Court's opinion, stated, "Neither our words nor our decisions should be interpreted as signaling one inch of retreat from Congress's policy to forbid discrimination in the private, as well as the public, sphere."

Less controversial have been developments in the area of civil rights for handicapped people. In 1990, President george h. w. bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 327 [codified in scattered sections of 42, 29, 47 U.S.C.A.] [effective 1992]), which was quickly hailed as the most significant civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled persons in employment, public accommodations, transportation, and Telecommunications. Referred to as the bill of rights for physically and mentally disabled citizens—who were estimated to number 43 million at the time of the act's passage—the act supersedes previous state and local laws and extends protection to any person with a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual."

The act includes many features that are intended to improve living conditions for those with disabilities. For example, employers, providers of public transportation, and private businesses with public accommodation (such as theaters, restaurants, hotels, and banks) must make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled persons. Often such accommodations must include wheelchair access. Similarly, all commuter and intercity trains are required to have at least one car that is handicapped-accessible, and telephone companies must provide relay operators for hearing-impaired individuals who use special telecommunications devices.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 (Pub. L. No. 102-166, 105 Stat. 1071 [codified in scattered sections of 42, 29, 2 U.S.C.A.]) marked another important step in civil rights legislation. The act repudiated several U.S. Supreme Court decisions on civil rights; granted women and disabled persons the right to recover money damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and granted congressional employees the protection of Title VII. Among the high court's decisions that were overturned by the 1991 act was Patterson. Section 101 of the act states that employees may sue for damages experienced through racial discrimination in hiring, promotion, dismissal, and all other terms of employment. The changes in Title VII employee-discrimination cases entitle plaintiffs to jury trials and allow them to recover damages in addition to back pay.

Although many minority groups have made rapid advances toward recognition of their civil rights, one group that continues to struggle is the homosexual community. Similar to ethnic and racial minorities, individuals who identify themselves as homosexual, bisexual, or transsexual have long been subject to disparate treatment from the majority. Although Gay and Lesbian Rights groups have made advances toward changing perceptions in society, challenges in the courts have been only marginally successful.

Gay and lesbian rights group claimed a victory in 1996 with the Supreme Court's decision in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 116 S. Ct. 1620, 134 L. Ed. 2d 855 (1996). In that case, a constitutional amendment in the state of Colorado prohibited governmental units from passing any statute, regulation, or ordinance purporting to protect the rights of homosexuals or bisexuals. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause because it explicitly denies a single group protection under the law.

Although Romer represented one of the first major victories for gay and lesbian groups, other decisions have been less favorable. In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640, 120 S. Ct. 2446, 147 L. Ed. 2d 554 (2000), the Court held that the Boy Scouts could properly exclude gay boys from their organization based upon the principle of freedom of association. Due in large part to their limited success in the courts and legislatures, gay and lesbian advocates have focused much of their attention on changing societal perceptions of homosexual, bisexuals, and other similar minority groups.

Another issue that has arisen in the courts with respect to civil rights is the limitations placed upon Section 1983 actions against governmental officials for violations of constitutional rights. For instance, in Board of County Commissioners of Bryan County, Okla. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 117 S. Ct. 12382, 137 L. Ed. 2d 626 (1997), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that a plaintiff cannot recover in an action under section 1983 under a theory of repondeat superior. The plaintiff in the case was injured when a police officer forced her to the ground after a chase. The officer had been hired by his great-uncle, a county sheriff, despite the fact that he had had a number of criminal convictions. The plaintiff claimed that the sheriff and the county had shown a reckless indifference toward her constitutional rights through their hiring practices. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a plaintiff in a Section 1983 action must prove that a governmental unit, through deliberate conduct, was a moving force behind the alleged injury.

Prisoners' Rights

Lawsuits brought by prisoners to recover damages for alleged violations of their civil rights have caused problems in American legal systems. Many of these cases have involved alleged violations by prisons or prison officials against inmates. Although many of these claims have no valid legal basis, some do, so courts must determine, among the thousands of cases that are filed each year, which ones have merit. In response to these claims, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1932 (2003), which requires prisoners to pay filing fees and restricts the amount of money damages that prisoners can recover.

Prisoners have prevailed on a variety of claims, notwithstanding limitations placed upon their court actions. For example, in Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 118 S. Ct. 1584, 140 L. Ed. 2d 759 (1998), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an appellate court decision that had imposed a higher Burden of Persuasion on inmate claims. Similarly, prisoners are periodically successful in claims that prison officials have deprived them of constitutional rights, including due process of law.

However, the majority of claims by inmates fail. For instance, in Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 122 S. Ct. 515, 151 L. Ed. 2d 456 (2001), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a plaintiff held in a halfway house that was operated by a private corporation under a contract with the federal government could not sue the corporation. The plaintiff had sought to bring the case under the rule in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S. Ct. 1999, 29 L. Ed. 2d 619 (1971) (called a Bivens action), which allows for suits against federal officials who have violated the civil rights of plaintiffs. The Court in Malesko held that Bivens actions do not apply the to acts of government agencies or business entities and ruled against the plaintiff.

Further readings

Abraham, Henry J., and Barbara A. Perry. 2003. Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Hepple, Bob, and Erika M. Szyszczak, eds. 1992. Discrimination: the Limits of Law. New York: Mansell.

Lewis, Harold S. Jr., and Elizabeth J. Norman. 2001. Civil Rights Law and Practice. St. Paul, Minn.: West.Rutland, George H., ed. 2001. Civil Rights in America. Huntington, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers.

Shull, Steven H. 1999. American Civil Rights Policy from Truman to Clinton: the Role of Presidential Leadership. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

Cross-references

Civil Rights Acts; Ku Klux Klan Act; Section 1983; Voting Rights Act of 1965. See also primary documents in "Civil Rights" section of Appendix.


Civil Rights

Slavery

From Segregation to Civil Rights

Women's Rights

Native American Rights

civil rights

n. those rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, including the right to due process, equal treatment under the law of all people regarding enjoyment of life, liberty, property, and protection. Positive civil rights include the right to vote, the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a democratic society, such as equal access to public schools, recreation, transportation, public facilities, and housing and equal and fair treatment by law enforcement and the courts. (See: Bill of Rights, civil, Civil Liberties)

civil rights

the personal rights of the individual citizen, in most countries upheld by law and now often mediated through HUMAN RIGHTS law.
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