A girls basketball coach who complained that his players got shabbier treatment than the boys team - then found himself benched - can sue for retaliation, the Supreme Court said yesterday in a case that expands the protections of a landmark gender equity law.
In a 5-4 decision, the court sided with Roderick Jackson, a high school girls basketball coach in Birmingham, Ala., who said his coaching duties were stripped after he repeatedly complained that the equipment and practice facilities provided to his team were inferior to what the boys received.
Two lower courts threw out Jackson's whistleblower case, saying that the federal law known as Title IX did not give him the right to sue. But in its majority decision, the Supreme Court said that such lawsuits, in many instances, would be the only way to crack down on sex discrimination in schools.
"Reporting incidents of discrimination is integral to Title IX enforcement and would be discouraged if retaliation against those who report it went unpunished," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court's narrow majority.
"Teachers and coaches such as Jackson are often in the best position to vindicate the rights of their students because they are better able to identify discrimination and bring it to the attention of administrators," O'Connor wrote. "Indeed, some adult employees are the only effective adversaries of discrimination in schools."
The ruling was a victory for women's advocates, who said it would bolster the protections of the 30-year-old Title IX legislation that forced schools and universities - many for the first time - to offer equal sports programs for female students. The law has been widely credited with advancing women's sports across the country.
For Jackson, 39, the decision vindicated a long personal fight that ended up before the nation's highest court five years after he first complained to the high school athletic director that the girls team was not allowed to practice in the school's new gymnasium and did not have access to basics, such as ice for injuries.
"I'm very happy for the girls, and I couldn't be more delighted with the decision," Jackson said in a conference call with reporters as he was between classes yesterday at Birmingham's Ensley High School. Jackson teaches ninth-grade health science and was reinstated as the interim coach of the girls basketball team while his legal case was pending.
Jackson, the father of a son and daughter, said that some of the inequities were addressed after his case drew the attention of national news media and interest groups.
But teachers, coaches and parents did not offer unanimous support for his fight.
"As in any situation, reviews are mixed," he said. "You have some people who support you, who believe in the great American way. ... And you have some who [act] like you just robbed their next-door neighbor."
The Supreme Court split along ideological lines. O'Connor, a closely watched moderate conservative, was joined in the majority by the court's more liberal members, Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.
The dissent, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, was joined by three of the court's fellow conservatives - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.
The four dissenting justices said Title IX barred discrimination only "on the basis of sex" and made no explicit provisions for claims of retaliation.
"A claim of retaliation is not a claim of discrimination on the basis of sex," Thomas wrote, offering this analogy: "Suppose a sexist air traffic controller withheld landing permission for a plane because the pilot was a woman. While the sex discrimination against the female pilot no doubt adversely impacted male passengers aboard that plane, one would never say they were discriminated against `on the basis of sex' by the controller's actions."
The dissent said the majority's decision overreached and created a remedy for Title IX claims that Congress never intended - "a prophylactic enforcement mechanism designed to encourage whistleblowing about sex discrimination."
The National School Boards Association, as well as nine states, had argued against Jackson, raising concerns that his retaliation case could open school districts across the country to vast new liability.
But Jackson also drew widespread support - from the Justice Department and women's advocacy groups, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association. He was represented by the National Women's Law Center, and his case was argued before the court by Duke law professor and former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, known recently for handling an appeal of Martha Stewart's stock fraud conviction.