Welcome to This Week in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether Puerto Ricans should be constitutionally entitled to federal benefit programs, the California Supreme Court will decide whether a law prohibiting eldercare workers from misgendering transgender residents violates free speech protections, the US Department of Justice launched a historic equity probe in Alabama, and much more.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on the legality of denying federal benefits to low-income Puerto Ricans. This case arises from the federal government’s lawsuit against Jose Luis Vaello-Madero seeking repayment of $28,000 the government claims was improperly paid to Mr. Vaello-Madero in Supplemental Security Income. SSI is available to US citizens in all 50 states, including the District of Columbia, but not Puerto Rico. Although Mr. Vaello-Madero initially received SSI in New York, he subsequently moved to Puerto Rico in 2013, continuing to receive SSI payments. Upon learning of his move, the Social Security Administration sought repayment of the benefits Mr. Madero received while living in Puerto Rico. Mr. Vaello-Madero won his case in lower courts arguing the law violates his right to equal protection. However, the Justice Department defended the law in the Supreme Court by arguing Congress made a rational choice to exclude Puerto Rican residents because they are generally exempt from paying federal income taxes. This case may also implicate the Insular Cases, a series of early 20th century decisions ruling territories acquired by the United States, such as Puerto Rico, are not automatically entitled to all US constitutional protections.
California’s Supreme Court will decide whether prohibiting long-term eldercare workers from misgendering transgender residents violates the First Amendment. At issue is California’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Long-Term Care Facility Residents’ Bill of Rights which requires long-term elder care facilities to recognize transgender residents’ gender identity and prohibits workers from “willfully and repeatedly fail[ing] to use a resident’s preferred name or pronouns after being clearly informed of the preferred name or pronouns.” Justice Elena Duarte, writing for the California Court of Appeal, decided that the contested provision violates the First Amendment because it is a content-based restriction on free speech and is not sufficiently narrow to achieve the government’s compelling interest in eliminating discrimination against transgender residents. However, the Court of Appeal did determine that a separate provision of the law requiring room assignments be made based on gender identity did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourth Amendment. Granting review on November 10, the Supreme Court of California will now decide these issues although the court refused to depublish the lower court opinion in the meantime.
The US Department of Justice announced a historic equity probe into the sanitation Department of Alabama County. On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced it opened an environmental justice investigation examining the wastewater disposal and infectious disease and outbreak programs in the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County, Alabama, Health Department. The Civil Rights Division will investigate whether these programs operate in a manner that discriminates against Black residents in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Additionally, the investigation will explore whether Black residents receive diminished access to adequate sanitation systems and disproportionately and unjustifiably risk exposure to adverse health effects such as hookworm infections. The investigation marks the first Title VI environmental justice investigation of one of the Department’s funding recipients.
Federal appeals court upholds order temporarily blocking vaccine and testing mandate for large companies. On Friday, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reaffirmed its prior ruling placing a hold on an order by President Biden that would mandate all companies with 100 workers or more require COVID-19 vaccinations. The Fifth Circuit determined the mandate is overbroad because it does not account for differences in workplaces or workers. The court also emphasized the importance of maintaining the constitutional structure and protecting individual liberty to make personal decisions like whether to get a vaccine or not. Similar lawsuits aiming to strike down the vaccine mandate have been filed at other regional US appellate courts in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington DC. The Fifth Circuit is the only appellate court to have ruled on the issue so far, but its determination could be dissolved when all of the challenges are consolidated into a single federal appellate court through the multi-circuit lottery process.
Civil rights groups advocate for clemency for inmates released during COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-nine advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are asking the White House to expand the plan granting clemency to inmates released to home confinement during the pandemic. Advocates say the current policy excludes individuals convicted of non-drug-related crimes and those with lengthy sentences. Around 4,800 individuals incarcerated in federal prisons were released pursuant to a March 2020 law to curb COVID-19 transmission rates. Currently, released individuals may only apply for clemency if they are convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses with 18 months to four years left on their prison terms.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge ended the conservatorship of Britney Spears on Friday. Judge Brenda Penny terminated the nearly 14 year-long conservatorship, ruling it was no longer required. Jamie Spears, Britney Spears’s father, first petitioned for the conservatorship in early 2008 due to Ms. Spears’s public mental health struggles and possible substance abuse. Although the conservatorship was intended to be temporary, it became permanent by the end of the year. The conservatorship entered Ms. Spears into professional contracts; vetted friendships, visitors, and boyfriends; dictated travel; and many other things.
Jury deliberations to begin in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on Monday. Kyle Rittenhouse, charged with various offenses linked to his killing of two racial justice protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, testified in his own defense at trial last week. Defense counsel for Mr. Rittenhouse argued for a mistrial with prejudice after the prosecutor questioned Mr. Rittenhouse on topics Judge Bruce Schroeder had earlier said he was inclined to prohibit. Judge Schroeder also announced on Friday he will allow the jury to consider two lesser charges for the killing of Anthony Huber. Closing arguments and jury deliberation are set to begin on Monday.
Federal labor-focused agencies announced a joint initiative to end retaliation and promote workers’ rights. On Wednesday, the US Department of Labor, National Labor Relations Board, and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a statement about their joint initiative to raise awareness on retaliation issues when workers exercise their protected labor rights. The collaboration will seek to educate employers, labor organizations, and the public about the increased incidences of retaliation. The initiative will launch with a virtual dialogue on November 17 targeting employers and discussing the importance of workers’ anti-retaliation protections and the agency’s shared commitment to enforcing those rights.