March 9, 2011
A Forward Looking Decision in Civil Rights
A couple of weeks ago the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most liberal, if not the most liberal, federal appellate court in the country, handed down an opinion that has slipped under the radar of the news media and the punditry who are normally attuned to events that mark major change.
The case, Darensburg v. Metropolitan Transit Commission, is an appeal from a federal district court decision involving allegations of discrimination in the decision of the Transit Commission to favor greater investment in future rail projects over bus expansion in the Bay area. The plaintiffs—a group of racial minorities who ride buses operated by the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, a community-based organization, and a labor union—alleged that the MTC intentionally discriminated and made decisions, that, even if not intentionally discriminatory, had a disparate and unfair impact on minorities.
The trial court had found that there was absolutely no evidence of intentional discrimination by the MTC but allowed a trial as to whether there was a disparate impact on minorities by the decision to favor rail investment over buses. After hearing all the evidence, the trial court found no disparate impact. The appellate agreed with the trial court, but broke important ground in the reasoning it applied to its rejection of the plaintiffs’ assertions.
Judge Barry Silverman (a Clinton appointee) wrote:
The unanimous three judge court rejected wholesale the kind of statistical data that is often accepted as dispositive. For example, the plaintiffs presented the fact that minority ridership on BART (the Bay area’s rapid transit rail system) is 53% while the minority ridership on Alameda County Transit (the bus system that plaintiffs favor) is 78%. The plaintiffs’ conclusion being that any action that benefited rail over bus was necessarily discriminatory in impact, if not intent. The court wisely looks beyond the superficially troubling data to conclude that the rapid transit expansion plan,
The reasoning of the court has serious implications in countless other areas where a disparity in numbers between minorities and non-minorities is often taken as evidence of discrimination without a deeper examination of the issues at play and the dynamics of complex human interactions that aren’t revealed by simple statistical disparities.
The concurring opinion by Justice Noonan (Reagan appointee) succinctly explicates what is wrong with the case he had to decide and the process it reflects:
This is a refreshing breath of fresh air in the realm of civil rights litigation—-an acknowledgement of the changing attitudes of Americans and their implications for legal theories. Rather than easily rely on the invocation of stale and ossified theories based on the social dynamics of the 1950’s and 60’s this court has looked to see what is really going on and came to the right decision.
It has shed the notion, prevalent for decades that presumed that there was often a hidden agenda that laws affecting broad swaths of people failed to reveal. Minorities and poor folks were the targets and legislators and bureaucrats masked their real intentions. This opinion doesn’t assume an evil subtext. It grants that the decisions made are difficult ones and that multiple interest groups were at play. But it concluded that, barring dispositive evidence that poor folks and minorities were to be victims, the court’s role should be minimal. It gave the benefit of the doubt to a body politic that has matured and become far different from what it was just forty years ago.