Court Narrows 1866 Civil Rights Law

THE Supreme Court has unanimously upheld a 1976 ruling that said a 1866 law enacted to help freed slaves could be used to sue private citizens accused of race bias. But in a separate 5-4 vote the court also ruled that the 123-year-old civil rights law cannot be invoked to fight racial harassment.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in his opinion for the court, said adherence to precedent compelled the conservative majority on the court to uphold the 1976 ruling.

Kennedy called the ruling, handed down last week, ``entirely consistent with our society's deep commitment to the eradication of discrimination based on a person's race or the color of his or her skin.''

Kennedy said, however, that allowing suits for racial harassment was not envisioned by the 1866 law. He said the law governs contractual rights - not most conduct by an employer after an individual is hired.

Dissenting on the racial harassment decision, Justice William J. Brennan said, ``What the court declines to snatch away with one hand, it takes with the other.''

In another matter, the court ruled 5-4 that states and state officials may not be sued under an 1871 law that authorizes damages against ``persons'' who violate people's civil liberties.

However the court ruled separately that states may be forced, through private lawsuits, to help pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites targeted under the so-called Superfund Act.

By a 5-4 vote the justices said the Constitution's Commerce Clause gives Congress has the power to strip state governments of immunity against private lawsuits.

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