October 04, 2019

Harris, Members of Congress File U.S. Supreme Court Amicus Brief in Support of Federal Civil Rights Law

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) on Monday led an amicus brief in the United States Supreme Court in Comcast Corporation v. National Association of African American-Owned Media and Entertainment Studios Networks, Inc. The issue before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether victims of race discrimination must meet the burdensome “but-for” causation standard at the pleading stage under one of the oldest federal civil rights laws. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in this case on November 13, 2019.

The statute at issue in the case—42 U.S.C. Section?1981—was passed immediately after the Civil War as part of a broader effort to ensure that newly freed slaves enjoyed the same rights as other citizens. The Ninth Circuit interpreted Section 1981 to allow victims to allege that race was a motivating factor for a defendant’s refusal to contract, rather than the “but for” cause of harm. Comcast appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it argues for a burdensome but-for causation standard that would greatly limit access to the courts for victims of discrimination. The congressional amicus brief led by Senator Harris supports the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and argues that, under the statute, plaintiffs can proceed with claims where race discrimination is a motivating factor, but not the sole cause of harm.

Harris was joined on the brief by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), along with Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA), Joyce Beatty (D-OH), Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ)

“[T]he structure and history of Section 1981 confirm that the statute, by design, prohibits any racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts, regardless of whether that discrimination is a but-for cause of the parties’ failure to enter into an agreement,” the lawmakers argued.

They continued, “[T]his Court should hold that a person who is denied the right to contract to which she is entitled under Section 1981 need not plead or prove that race was a but-for cause of that denial. To hold otherwise would fundamentally alter the statute that Congress passed in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War ‘to prohibit all racially motivated deprivations of the rights enumerated in the statute.’”

In addition to members of Congress, the following groups joined amicus briefs in support of Section 1981: NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, National Action Network, the National Urban League, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the SEIU.

Access the legislators’ full brief here.