Weekly Legal News 4/27/14

The National Basketball Association banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the game for life on Tuesday and fined him $2.5 million for racist comments that drew outrage from players, fans, commercial sponsors and even President Barack Obama. Sterling, the longest-tenured owner of any of the 30 NBA teams, will be barred from any role in the operations of his team or be able to serve as one of the league’s governors, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told a news conference in New York. The controversy began over the weekend when the celebrity website TMZ.com released an audio recording with a voice said to be Sterling’s criticizing a woman friend for associating with “black people.” The recording included Sterling asking his friend not to invite former Los Angeles Laker star player Earvin “Magic” Johnson to games. It was not immediately clear whether Sterling would seek to challenge the ban in court. But lawyers with expertise in sports law gave him little chance of successfully suing the NBA. Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson praised Silver for having “handled this matter emphatically and decisively.” He said the banning of Sterling “lays the groundwork for defining a threshold for racist conduct.”


Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation on Tuesday requiring some applicants for food stamps and welfare benefits to undergo a drug test. Under the bill, testing could be required if authorities have a “reasonable suspicion” of drug use. A person failing the test would temporarily lose benefits, although their children could receive assistance through another adult. Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, called the legislation “shameful” and said it violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches. She also argued that state employees are not adequately trained to detect signs of possible drug use. A federal judge late last year struck down a Florida bill requiring drug screening for welfare recipients, ruling it violated the constitutional prohibition of unreasonable searches.


An Alabama man who says he was fired for exposing public corruption received broad support from the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in a free-speech dispute testing workplace protections for government employees. A ruling in favor of the man at the center of the legal fight, Edward Lane, could make it easier for prosecutors to pursue official public corruption allegations where the cooperation of government workers is often a key factor. In 2006, Lane was directing a state-funded training program to help at-risk youth, coordinated through Central Alabama Community College. An audit he performed found someone on the payroll was not showing up for work and had done virtually nothing for the program. But this was no ordinary employee: Sue Schmitz was also an Alabama state legislator. Lane says he tried to work with Schmitz to perform her job duties. But he alleged she threatened him, and said he was cautioned by colleagues not to confront someone with her political influence. Nevertheless, Lane fired her. Federal prosecutors charged the retired teacher with fraud. She was convicted, received a 30-month prison term, and was forced to resign from office. Lane was later terminated from his government job, prompting him to sue the college president. Several justices questioned whether the law was clear at the time of the firing to hold the college president liable for damages. And some justices wondered whether a public official should enjoy broad job security when testifying in court. Chief Justice John Roberts said Lane had no choice but to testify as ordered. The Supreme Court has previously said such workers cannot sue over an adverse job action such as a firing or disciplinary action, when speaking on facts learned “pursuant to their official duties.” They can only make such claims when they speak as a private citizen. But oral arguments revealed the court was likely to carve exceptions for employees compelled to testify under oath about matters of public concern.


Last week, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan law that banned affirmative action in Schuette v. BAMN. Civil rights leaders decried the Court’s decision. Yet hidden within the decision is a legal theory—about the significance of racial discrimination by ordinary citizens—that provides crucial and unexpected support for minority voting rights. A lower court struck it down, reasoning not that the U.S. Constitution requires affirmative action, but that the law, which amended Michigan’s state constitution, kept minorities from using ordinary political tools to achieve policy goals like affirmative action. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court. The doctrine rested on the proposition that it violates equal protection for a state to create special procedures, such as referendum voting requirements, for the enactment of laws whose benefits inure primarily to racial minorities. Some of the rhetoric and anger in Sotomayor’s dissent can be traced to the Court’s decision last summer holding that southern states and local governments were no longer required to get advance permission from the federal government before implementing changes to their election laws, a Voting Rights Act requirement known as preclearance. Seemingly neutral political reforms that “target” and disadvantage a racial minority may be unconstitutional, even if they aren’t motivated by intent to harm minorities. This matters for the future of the Voting Rights Act. For starters, there now can be little doubt that the “results test” of Section 2 is constitutional when deployed against newly adopted election laws—such as voter ID requirements, or redistricting maps—that disadvantage racial minorities under circumstances of widespread societal discrimination.