The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:
The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two disappointing decisions Tuesday, one putting limits on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the other allowing the arrest and jailing of motorists for minor traffic infractions. These harsh actions can and should be remedied by quick legislative action.
In the civil rights case, the court's conservative majority sharply scaled back the reach of the landmark 1964 law. The court ruled 5 to 4 that states, agencies, schools and colleges receiving federal funds may no longer be sued for policies that work a harsher effect on minorities - that in order to sue, the discrimination must be deliberate policy. The decision upends 35 years of allowing private lawsuits as a way to enforce civil rights guarantees. "We hold no such right of action exists," Justice Antonin Scalia summarily said for the court majority.
With that, the court effectively closed the door to valid claims by individuals and groups seeking redress for discrimination in education and other public arenas.
The remedy in this case is for Congress to explicitly affirm the right of citizens and groups to pursue claims of discriminatory effect. This would not encourage frivolous lawsuits but instead restore a powerful tool to safeguard long-held rights.
Legislative action might also help remedy the high court's disturbing ruling in a Texas traffic case. Again by a 5-4 vote, the court held that police may arrest and jail motorists for even minor traffic offenses.
The justices upheld the arrest of a Texas mother because she and her two children were not wearing seat belts, a violation that carries a $50 fine. The ruling is one of a string of recent decisions in which the court has broadly expanded the ability of police officers to stop motorists and then undertake a full search of their cars without running afoul of Fourth Amendment limits on searches and seizures.
As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted in dissent Tuesday, the majority's decision would seem to sanction arrest even in a littering case. As such, the ruling transmits a troublesome message to police, possibly encouraging more harassment and racial profiling on the road. A clear statement by state legislatures that arrest is not appropriate when punishment for the alleged offense does not include jail time would send a welcome signal of restraint.