Supreme Court votes 8-1 against retroactive use of 1991 Civil Rights Act

April 27, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A compromise that Congress accepted three years ago to get a major civil rights bill past President George Bush's opposition led the Supreme Court yesterday to bar any use of that law against acts of bias that happened before 1991.

As a result, thousands of women, blacks and other minorities with cases still in the courts will be unable to take advantage of the sweeping new protection written into the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Employers will avoid potential damage claims in millions of dollars that workers could have won under the law.

By a vote of 8-1, with only retiring Justice Harry A. Blackmun in dissent, the court ruled yesterday that no part of the law is retroactive.

Among the main provisions of the law is a new right to seek damage payments for sex or race bias on the job under a 1964 civil rights law; a new right to jury trials in bias cases involving claims for damages; a broadening of an 1866 civil rights law to cover firing and denials of promotions; and extension of U.S. civil rights laws to Americans working overseas.

The court stressed that the 1991 law may be used only against discrimination that arose after the law was signed by Mr. Bush on Nov. 21, 1991. The law is fully effective for bias claims dated after that.

The ruling rejected the view of the Clinton administration that the law should apply to past cases, but gave a belated victory to the opposite view held by the Bush administration.

The court cited "the unfairness of imposing new burdens on persons after the fact" as the main reason for not making the law retroactive, in the absence of a clear command by Congress that the law was intended to reach pre-1991 situations.

Congress, after a two-year struggle with Mr. Bush, passed the broad law to undo eight recent Supreme Court rulings that had cut back on the scope of several federal civil rights laws. The law that emerged was a legislative slap aimed at the court.

In the midst of that two-year battle, Mr. Bush in 1990 vetoed an earlier version of the law. One of his objections was that that version would have explicitly applied the law to earlier incidents. In 1991, in a compromise accepted by congressional leaders, the issue of retroactivity was deliberately left unclear, allowing lawmakers on each side to claim that it would, or would not, be retroactive.

"Congress," the court's opinion remarked, "viewed the matter as an open issue to be resolved by the courts. . . . The legislators agreed to disagree about whether and to what extent the act would apply to [pre-1991] conduct."

The court, after studying the question for about six months, settled it in two opinions dealing with a sex-bias case from a factory in Tyler, Texas, and a race-bias case from a trucking depot in Toledo, Ohio.

In an opinion written by one of the court's liberal justices, John Paul Stevens, the court declared that Congress had had the power to make the 1991 law retroactive if it wished, but it had not done so explicitly.

The usual rule of law, Justice Stevens said, is that laws do not apply retroactively unless the legislature confronts that issue directly and votes expressly to make a law apply to past actions. "A requirement that Congress first make its intention clear helps ensure that Congress itself has determined that the benefits of retroactivity outweigh the potential for disruption or unfairness," Justice Stevens wrote.

The opinion lamented the impact of retroactive laws on those who have relied on prior law, and remarked: "In a free, dynamic society, creativity in both commercial and artistic endeavors is fostered by a rule of law that gives people confidence about the legal consequences of their actions."

The ruling, not surprisingly, drew opposite reactions. Civil rights groups were angry. Judith L. Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, said the decision "is a terrible blow" to victims of bias on the job, and "a terrible injustice."

Business groups, however, were elated. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said "obviously, we're very pleased," noting that "the possible liability" business had faced would have been significant.

Congress remains free to make the 1991 law retroactive, the court said, remarking that "the legislature's unmatched powers allow it to sweep away settled expectations suddenly."

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in a statement: "We hope that Congress will now take the court's decision into account, and pass an amendment making its intention [to make the law retroactive] clear beyond cavil."

But there appears to be little sentiment to open up again the controversy between the two major political parties in Congress over civil rights. Justice Stevens' opinion noted the "partisan statements" that had figured prominently in debates over the retroactivity issue.

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