Workplace, Abortion Issues Before Supreme Court

by Yvonne Roth
Communications Intern

Abortion clinic buffer zones, sexual harassment and job discrimination are just several of the key issues of interest to NOW members in cases that are before the U.S. Supreme Court during its 1996-97 term.

"The justices will decide what remedies we have when our rights are violated outside women's health clinics, inside judges chambers, on the job, or in school," NOW President Patricia Ireland said, "and they will continue to do so until our rights are guaranteed under the Constitution."

In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments from lawyers representing abortion protesters in Schenck vs. Pro-Choice Network, an appeal of a western New York judge's preliminary injunction that established floating "bubble zones" at clinics providing abortion services. Responding to boisterous badgering by protesters in front of reproductive health care clinics, the injunction provides a fixed 15-foot buffer zone around a clinic's entrance and a floating 15-foot bubble zone around anyone approaching or leaving a clinic. Under a cease and desist provision, two sidewalk protesters are allowed to enter these zones until the person being approached opposes the close-proximity confrontation.

The Supreme Court's decision to hear Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network might put at risk a 1994 ruling upholding unimpeded access to abortion clinics (Madsen v. Women's Health Center). This ruling established a fixed 36-foot buffer zone around clinics without jeopardizing freedom of speech rights provided by the First Amendment.

Several justices expressed concern that the injunction at issue in Schenck violates the right to free speech. Pro-Choice Network lawyer Lucinda Finley likewise cited the First Amendment and said, "All citizens have a right, protected by the First Amendment, to refuse unwanted messengers," including anti-abortion protesters.

Sexual harassment is the subject of Clinton v. Jones. In this case, the Supreme Court will determine if a president can be sued during his term for action taken before he took office. Paula Jones, a former employee of then-Gov. Clinton's Arkansas state government, filed a civil suit against him in 1994 claiming he sexually harassed her. Should President Clinton succeed in establishing immunity, Jones' case against him would be postponed for another four years.

When Jones' suit was filed in 1994, NOW issued a press statement in which Ireland called for fair treatment of both parties, saying, "Paula Jones and President Clinton deserve their day in court." While NOW criticized Jones for using right-wing organizations to launch her suit publicly against President Clinton, NOW leaders support her right to be heard. NOW takes no position on the presidential immunity issue.

Access to justice for victims of sexual harassment is also implicitly at stake in two cases involving employment discrimination. In Robinson v. Shell Oil Company, the Supreme Court will decide if former employees are covered by the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Extension of anti-retaliation provisions could be especially beneficial for former employees who were victims of sexual or racal harassment and filed complaints against their employer or failed to do so out of fear of retaliation.

Another pending decision will be relevant for women in particular, because it affects the coverage of part-time workers against discrimination under Title VII. In Walters v. Metropolitan Enterprises, Inc., the court will determine if part-time and hourly workers should be counted by employers, in determing whether they fall under the jurisdiction of Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination. A Supreme Court ruling could affect more than 24 million U.S. workers, most of whom are female and work part time.

Abuse of judicial authority and protection of bodily integrity under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause are at question in United States v. Lanier. A former Tennessee chancery court judge was convicted after he raped and sexually assaulted women with whom he worked or who were defendants in his court. The former judge, David W. Lanier, was convicted under a federal statute as a person who committed crimes "under color of law," in this case as a judge with real and implied power over his victims. At issue is civil rights protection for women assaulted by public authorities.

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