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The Supreme Court and Sex Discrimination Previous Next
Digital History ID 3344


Despite its conservative image, the Supreme Court under Chief Justices Warren Burger and William Rehnquist has been active in the area of sex discrimination and women's rights. In contrast to the Warren Court, which ruled on only one major sex discrimination case--upholding a law that excluded women from serving on juries--the Burger and Rehnquist Courts have considered numerous cases involving women's rights.

The Burger Court issued its first important discrimination decision in the landmark case, Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971). The Supreme Court established the principle that regardless of an employer's intentions, any employment practice is illegal if it has a "disparate" impact on women or minorities and "if it cannot be shown to be related to job performance." In subsequent cases, the Supreme Court legitimized the use of statistics in measuring employment discrimination and approved the use of back pay in compensating discrimination victims.

In 1975, the Burger Court reversed the Warren Court by striking down a Louisiana statute calling for all-male juries. In subsequent decisions, the high court ruled against a Utah law setting different ages at which men and women became adults and overturned an Alabama law setting minimum height and weight requirements for prison guards--standards that meant that almost no woman would qualify.

The Supreme Court has yet to set an absolute rule that laws and employment practices must treat men and women the same. In 1976, it adopted its current standard for sex discrimination. In order to be constitutional, a policy that discriminates on the basis of sex must be "substantially related to an important government objective."

The Supreme Court's most controversial decision involving women's rights was delivered in the case of Roe v. Wade (1973). A single, pregnant, Texas waitress, assigned the pseudonym Jane Roe in order to protect her privacy, brought suit against Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade to prevent him from enforcing a 19th-century Texas statute prohibiting abortion. The Supreme Court ruled on the woman's behalf and struck down the Texas law and all similar laws in other states. In its ruling, the Court declared that the decision to have an abortion is a private matter of concern only to a woman and her physician, and that only in the last three months of pregnancy could the government limit the right to abortion.

Many Americans--including many Catholic lay and clerical organizations--bitterly opposed the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade (1973) decision and banded together to form the "right to life" movement. The major legislative success of the right to life movement was adoption by Congress of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which permitted states to refuse to fund abortions for indigent women.

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