Constitutional Law and Civil Rights

State Net Capitol Journal Civil Rights Updates: Affirmative Action, Election Rights, Abortion Rules

SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS MI BAN ON AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: Last month the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Michigan's 2006 ballot initiative ending affirmative action at public universities in the state [version available to subscribers]. The decision was 6-2 but there was considerably less consensus among the justices on the issue than that vote suggests.

Five separate opinions were issued by the court, laying out sharply contrasting views. The most strident was that of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was undoubtedly influenced by her personal experiences with affirmative action at Princeton University and Yale Law School.

At one point, she seemed to mock a memorable line from Chief Justice Roberts in a 2007 decision limiting the use of race to achieve integration in public schools.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race," he wrote, "is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race," Sotomayor countered, "is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination."

Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito Jr., was more measured.

"This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved," he wrote. "It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court's precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters."

The high court's decision won't directly alter the ability of universities in states without affirmative action bans to consider race in their admissions processes. But the ruling will allow states to restrict that authority themselves through the ballot process, as states like California, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington have done, and it could encourage other states to do the same. (WALL STREET JOURNAL, NEW YORK TIMES, NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF STATE LEGISLATURES)

FEDERAL COURT STRIKES DOWN WI VOTER ID LAW: A federal judge struck down a Wisconsin law last Tuesday [version available to subscribers] that required voters to show a photo identification before being allowed to vote. U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that the state did not make a compelling case that voter fraud is a significant problem, adding that the law unconstitutionally imposes an unfair burden on poor and minority voters. Gov. Scott Walker (R) said the state is considering its options for an appeal. (WASHINGTON POST, FOXNEWS.COM)

SUPREME COURT CONSIDERS CHALLENGE TO ELECTION LYING LAW: You wouldn't guess it from observing most political campaigns, but in some states lying in an election is actually against the law. A challenge to one of those laws, in Ohio, was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court last month.

The Ohio Elections Commission has rarely referred violations of the state's false-statement law for prosecution, but two conservative groups, Susan B. Anthony List and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, have alleged the law violates the First Amendment by suppressing protected speech [version available to subscribers].

"It almost never comes to a criminal prosecution, but that doesn't mean there's no chilling effect on speech," said Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor who isn't associated with the case.

A ruling, which is expected in June, could have implications for more than a dozen other states with false-statement laws similar to Ohio's. But it's unlikely any changes will come before the end of the current election cycle. (WALL STREET JOURNAL, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO)

POLITICS IN BRIEF: A county judge in MINNESOTA ordered Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (DFL) to shut down the state's new online voter registration system. In his ruling, Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann said the system was set up without the permission of the state Legislature, which is controlled by the GOP (MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE).

— Compiled by KOREY CLARK

SOCIAL POLICY: MISSISSIPPI Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signs HB 1400 [version available to subscribers], a bill that bars abortions after a woman reaches the 20th week of pregnancy. The measure exempts cases where the mother's life is in danger or there is a chance of a severe abnormality in the fetus, but not those where the pregnancy is a case of rape or incest (JACKSON CLARION-LEDGER). • GEORGIA Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signs SB 98 [version available to subscribers], which bans insurance coverage for abortion for both state employees and those buying insurance through the state health benefits exchange (RHREALITYCHECK.ORG).

— Compiled by RICH EHISEN

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