» Law, Justice, and EthicsThe U.S. Supreme Court Makes Landmark Rulings on Voting Rights, Affirmative Action, and Same-Sex Marriage
On June 24, the Supreme Court ruled on Fisher v. University of Texas, a case challenging the university’s consideration of race as a factor in its admissions process. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, in the case contended that she was denied admission to the University of Texas in favor of less qualified applicants due to the university’s affirmative action policy. The Supreme Court ruled that while affirmative action is constitutional, a lower court improperly considered a 2003 Supreme Court judgment from the case Grutter v. Bollinger (which upheld the use of race in affirmative action) when it ruled on Ms. Fisher’s case. As a result, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court for review. In the meantime, the University of Texas’s affirmative action policy remains in place, pending the outcome of the judicial review.
The next day, the Supreme Court ruled on Shelby County, Alabama, v. Holder, which challenged the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act requires states and local jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to be pre-cleared before any changes to their voting laws can be made. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal formula, which is covered by Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, is outdated and, therefore, unconstitutional. With the formula stuck down, the preclearance requirements, which are covered in Section 5 of the law, cannot be enforced. The Court did, however, allow Congress the opportunity to revise the formula. With the recent gridlock in Congress, the future of a new legislative formula and voting rights in this country remain uncertain.
On June 26, the Supreme Court made two separate rulings on same-sex marriage. In the first case, United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred the federal government from recognizing marriage benefits for same-sex couples married in states that permit such unions.
In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the defense of California Proposition 8 (Prop 8). Prop 8 is a California constitutional amendment that passed by ballot initiative in 2008, which banned samesex marriages. Two same-sex couples challenged Prop 8 in federal court. The State of California declined to defend the amendment, so a private group of Prop 8 proponents stood in to defend the law. However, in their U.S. Supreme Court decision, the justices ruled that the Prop 8 proponents do not have legal standing to defend the amendment (that right is held only by the State of California), so the court ordered that the case be dismissed.
» AgricultureFarm Bill Falters in the House
On June 20, the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass its version of the Farm Bill with a 194 to 234 vote. The failure of the bill mostly hinged on revisions to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Many Democrats (including all of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus) voted against the bill, primarily contending that SNAP had been cut too much. Conversely, several staunch conservativesalso voted against the bill because they felt that there were too few SNAP cuts. Two late amendments to the bill - one to allow states to drug test SNAP recipients and another to require SNAP recipients to meetfederal welfare work requirements - only served to solidify opposition from Democratic members. The failure was a mild surprise to many observers. It remains unclear whether the House will vote again on the Farm Bill, which would likely require another temporary extension to keep many of its key programs funded before the current authorization expires in September 2013. The Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill earlier in the month.
» Emergency Preparedness/Homeland SecurityImmigration Reform
The U.S. Senate took a major step toward immigration reform this week. On June 27, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation by a 68-32 vote, which included the entire Democratic Caucus and 14 Republicans. Senate negotiators had previously agreed to a compromise of provisions in an attempt to draw wide bipartisan support for the bill. Senate negotiators had been hoping that at least 70 yes-votes and robust support from Republican members would motivate their counterparts in the House to move a bill forward. However, the Republican support fell short of that goal, which may slightly dim prospects of passage in the Republican-controlled House.
The Senate bill increases border enforcement, requires employers to utilize electronic employee verification systems, and provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States. The Senate bill also makes sweeping changes to the visa process - reforms that include elimination of 50,000 Diversity Visas, which mostly serve African and West Indian immigrants. The Congressional Black Caucus had previously stated that their members would not support immigration reform bill that did not include such language.
» Energy, Transportation, and EnvironmentPresident Obama Makes Major Climate Change Address
On June 25, President Barack Obama made his first major policy announcement regarding climate change. During a speech at Georgetown University, the president laid out a series of executive actions to combat climate change. Highlights of the plan include ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to work with states and business groups to establish new carbon pollution standards for power plants and fuel economy standards for vehicles and increasing renewable energy generated on federally-owned lands and military installations. The president also ordered the U.S. State Department not approve the Keystone XL pipeline (a pipeline system to transport oil from Canada and the northern United States) unless it first determines that the project will not lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s Happening This Month?
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 - The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the nation’s benchmark civil rights legislation; it continues to resonate in America. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and was enacted on July 2, 1964.
- Independence Day - Independence Day, commonly known as the Fourth of July, is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain.
- Happy Birthday D.C. - July 16, 1790, marks the day that Congress decided to permanently move the capital of the United States of America to Washington, D.C. The District of Columbia remains the home of the federal government and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL), and is one of the most visited cities in the world.
- Mandela Day - Mandela Day 2013 will be celebrated on July 18th. It shall mark the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela and the fourth Nelson Mandela International Day. Following the success of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in London’s Hyde Park in June 2008, some decided that there could be nothing more fitting than to celebrate Mr. Mandela’s birthday each year with a day dedicated to his life’s work to ensure his legacy continues forever.