A Term of Victories

A woman smiling in front of the Supreme Court holding a marriage equality flag

Activists celebrated the Supreme Court's decision to end marriage discrimination on June 26, 2015.

August 05, 2015

Courts matter. If we had any doubt about that, this year’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions confirmed it. Victories on a range of issues important to AAUW members made this term particularly significant for supporters of equality. Read on for a summary of this year’s most important decisions. You can also listen to a recording of our Supreme Court wrap-up call.

A Win for the Pregnancy Discrimination Act: Young v. UPS

Young v. UPS went to the heart of one of the most important workplace protection laws: the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

Passed in 1978, the PDA states unequivocally that pregnancy discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, and it requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as non-pregnant employees who have similar abilities or inabilities to work. In other words, under the PDA, employees cannot treat pregnant workers who need accommodations as a result of pregnancy differently than other employees who require the same accommodation but who are not pregnant.

The plaintiff in this case, Peggy Young, worked for UPS and had requested temporary light-duty work as a result of pregnancy complications. Even though UPS provided light-duty work to other drivers with similar restrictions who were not pregnant, the company refused to provide the same accommodation to Young. As a result, she was forced to leave her job. She eventually filed suit under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but two lower courts threw out Young’s lawsuit before she had any chance to make her case.

After a long battle, the Supreme Court finally agreed to hear Young’s appeal. This spring, the court ruled 6-3 in favor of Young, which means that she will be able to present her case to the lower court for a ruling on the merits. Had the court sided with UPS, it could have weakened the PDA’s protection for pregnant workers.

Women’s Health Care Protected: King v. Burwell

King v. Burwell was yet another challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

In King, opponents of the health care law argued that tax credits that help low-income people afford health care coverage should only be available to people in states with state-run health care exchanges. If the court had sided with the challengers, millions of women would have lost health care coverage. Those credits are critical for people who are unemployed, self-employed, or for people who don’t receive insurance through an employer.

The challengers focused their entire argument on four words of the law’s regulations: “established by the state.” The law’s regulations say that the subsidies or credits are available to people who purchase insurance through an exchange that is “established by the state.” The challengers argued that the federal government isn’t a state, so the subsidies shouldn’t be available to anyone who purchased insurance through a federal exchange.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court rejected the challengers’ argument. Because the goal of the law was expressly to help ensure that people can access health care, it would be untenable to read the word “state” in isolation and deny millions of people that access, Roberts wrote. The subsidies are crucial to the viability of the health care exchanges, and Congress could not have intended a narrow reading that would destroy the ability of the exchanges to function. Thanks to this ruling, millions of women will be able to afford their health insurance.

Voting Rights: Victories and Questions

With a major election cycle gearing up, voting rights are on our minds.

The court saw several significant cases this term that addressed gerrymandering and redistricting. Two of the most significant were the linked cases Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama.

After the 2010 census, the Alabama legislature redrew the state’s voting districts. The resulting district plan packed more African American voters into fewer districts, diluting the voting power of African American communities. The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and Alabama Democratic Conference challenged the constitutionality of the plan in court, arguing that it amounted to racial gerrymandering. The court of appeals sided with the state. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed, sending the plan back to the lower court for a district-by-district review. Although the court did not rule on the constitutionality of the plan, it indicated that a majority of justices believed that at least some of the districts were drawn unconstitutionally. The court’s decision doesn’t ensure that the plan will be declared unconstitutional by the lower court, but it offers a chance for the challengers to make a case.

The court’s decision highlighted the serious threats that voting restrictions and redistricting pose all over the country. In addition to the Alabama cases, which are not over yet, voters and civil rights groups have challenged new restrictions and redistricting in several states. As we approach the 2016 election next year, these challenges will be front and center.

At Last, Marriage Equality Prevails

Though all of the court’s decisions are significant, this term will be remembered for one particular case: Obergefell v. Hodges.

Over the last few years, same-sex couples wishing to marry filed legal challenges to state bans on same-sex marriages, arguing that they were entitled to the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. And because some states performed same-sex marriages but others refused to recognize those marriages, many same-sex couples were stuck in legal limbo.

Finally, last year, several of those cases reached the Supreme Court, ensuring that it would decide the question of marriage equality once and for all.

The result was a resounding victory for equality. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that states must allow same-sex couples to marry and must recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other states. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, relied on earlier cases that had established the right to marry as a fundamental right. Of the same-sex couples seeking to marry, he wrote, “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Stay tuned to LAF Express for updates on the continuing cases and information on next year’s Supreme Court term. Sign up for LAF Express today.

Mollie Lam By:   |   August 05, 2015

2 Comments

  1. […] Every month Mollie Lam, Senior Manager, Legal Advocacy Fund, publishes The LAF Express to keep us up to date about issues concerning this vital fund. The LAF Express is no longer archived on the aauw.org site.    If you have not already done so, sign up here for your free monthly LAF Express.     The August edition focuses on “Victories at the Supreme Court; Appeals Court Blocks Unconstitutional Abortion Restriction in North Dakota; and Campus Outreach Grants.    Listen to a recording of the July 23, 2015 Supreme Court Wrap-Up Call  and take a look at the LAF Wrap-Up Blog. […]

  2. Nancy Neal says:

    Would certainly appreciate an update for this thread! This entry is over two years old. And why isn’t the LAF Express any longer archived? At least for the previous 12 months? I just signed up to receive the LAF Express. But I won’t even receive the current LAF Express. My subscription starts with the “next issue.” AAUW could at the very least include the most recent LAF Express on its website. Last month the Supre;me Court heard arguments on Gill v. Whitford – a landmark case out of Wisconsin on gerrymandering. I would really like access to any discussion/commentary from the current of past LAF Express issues on this case.

    Why am I the first person to comment on this thread? Surely I am not the only lawyer/member of AAUW.

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