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Rights and the Supremes


Last week was a historic, and deeply troubling, week, with the Supreme Court issuing some of the most important rulings it has made in recent years.

On the court's final day, there was a lot to celebrate, with the fall of the Defense of Marriage Act and a decision that, in effect, legalizes same-sex marriage in California. But while in those rulings the court affirmed a basic right, in a decision earlier in the week it slapped other Americans in the face. And in another, it seemed to merely postpone the day when many Americans will have to fight for an important right.

The rulings on marriage equality give federal benefits to same-sex married couples in states where those marriages are permitted, and they let California join (again) the list of those states. But for same-sex couples in most states, the rulings do nothing. Those Americans are still second-class citizens.

That said, it is no small thing – in both practical and symbolic terms – that DOMA has died. Same-sex couples deserve the benefits that other married couples have. And it was unconscionable for this country to have a federal law designed to hurt and discriminate against a specific group of citizens. (Conservatives in Congress aren't giving up, though; they're talking about a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage throughout the country.)

Dampening the celebration over the marriage-equality rulings: In Fisher v. the University of Texas, the court sent back to a lower court the issue of whether UT can consider applicants' race when it decides which students it will admit. UT had argued that a diverse student body serves an educational purpose. The court agreed that it does but said the university should be required to prove that it can't achieve diversity any way other than by considering the race of its applicants.

As Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation: "While the goal of diversity has been the easiest way to sell affirmative action to the public, that isn't the purpose. The original intent behind affirmative action was to afford the descendants of America's slave population and those who had suffered under Jim Crow – black people – the educational and employment opportunities denied to them by racist laws."

That need still exists, and while affirmative action is only one of the ways to address it, it's an important one.

More troubling still is the court's decision – and its reasoning – on the Voting Rights Act. In ruling that select cities and states no longer have to get permission from the Justice Department to change their voting laws, the justices turned a blind eye to the growing attack on voters' rights.

According to a report issued last month by the Brennan Center for Justice, 82 different bills to restrict voting were introduced this year in 31 states; seven states had passed restrictive bills, and 50 more bills were pending when the report was written.

Supervision under the Voting Rights Act needs to be expanded, not eliminated. The Supreme Court has made that all but impossible, though, at least for the foreseeable future.

John Nichols of The Nation notes the need for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. But constitutional amendments are neither easy nor fast, and a lot of damage can be done while we wait for that change.

On Sunday, the New York Times called on Congress to pass a law "declaring a universal right to vote that could not be infringed by any level of government." That's a long shot, too, given Republicans' addiction to states' rights.

We'll celebrate the steps toward marriage equality during the Gay Pride events in Rochester this month. But we need to keep in mind that while those are important steps, they are very, very small. And the big story this past week was the stark reminder that in terms of real equality for all Americans, we still have a long way to go. And that for the moment, the Supreme Court wants to pull us backward, not forward.

The Supremes' DOMA ruling is worth celebrating. But in terms of equality for all Americans, the court pulls us backward.