The United States Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday over whether a federal law enacted in 1866 to help eradicate ``the badges of slavery'' may be invoked today to sue private citizens accused of discrimination. The case stems from an appeal by Brenda Patterson, a black woman, who wanted to use the 1866 law to force her North Carolina employer, McLean Credit Union, to pay actual and punitive damages for alleged on-the-job harassment.
The lawyer representing the accused employer said the 1866 law ``would not reach private acts of discrimination,'' and that the court in a key 1976 decision interfered with the will of Congress in extending the old statute's reach.
The court sent shock waves through the civil rights community last April when it announced it would explore the issue of on-the-job racial harassment in the case.
While no party to the North Carolina case urged reconsideration of the 1976 precedent, the justices by a 5-to-4 vote took the extraordinary step of acting on their own initiative to call for a reexamination.
The deciding vote was cast by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's newest member, who could shift the balance toward a more conservative direction.