WASHINGTON (Oct. 5)
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jew to sit on the Supreme Court in 25 years, donned her black robe and took her seat among her new colleagues this week as the court began its 1993-1994 term.
The court’s agenda for the term, at least so far, does not include any church-state cases, which are traditionally those in which the organized Jewish community becomes most involved.
But Jewish groups have filed briefs in a range of cases that Ginsburg and the eight other justices have agreed to hear, including those concerning voting rights, civil rights and women’s rights.
Court-watchers are predicting that Ginsburg, with her background as a pioneering women’s rights advocate, will play an important role in the cases focusing on issues of concern to women.
Ginsburg is the first Jewish woman ever to serve on the court, and this term marks another historic milestone: It is the first time there have ever been two women sitting on the court.
One of the women’s rights cases in which Jewish groups have gotten involved is National Organization for Women vs. Scheidler.
The American Jewish Committee is among the organizations that have filed briefs asking the court to allow racketeering statutes to be used to stop organizations such as the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue from trying to block abortion clinics.
Jewish groups are also involved in a case asking whether plaintiffs claiming sexual harassment must prove severe psychological injury to make their case.
The term opened Monday, and on that first day, the court heard oral arguments in a set of Florida voting rights cases that concern some in the Jewish community.
Ginsburg jumped right into the questioning, in contrast to many previous rookie justices who shied away from making their presence felt in their first days on the court.
The American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League were among the groups filing briefs in the cases, Johnson vs. De Grandy and De Grandy vs. Johnson, which involve minority challenges to voting districts in the Florida state Legislature.
Many in the Jewish community, which is traditionally opposed to arguing cases on the basis of “group rights,” have been critical of redistricting plans drawn specifically to create minority districts.
JEWS INTERESTED IN CIVIL RIGHTS CASES
The question in these cases involves plans to create black and Hispanic districts in southern Florida. The Jewish groups’ briefs stress their view that redistricting should not be undertaken on the basis of race.
Also of special interest to Jewish groups are cases on this term’s docket dealing with the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
Jewish groups are among those asking whether the civil rights law can be applied retro-actively to cases pending at the time the act was passed.
While there is a dearth of church-state cases so far this term, the court did take action on a few Monday.
In one case, it let stand a lower court decision allowing the Texas attorney general to try to obtain the records of a controversial church and its televangelist leader, Robert Tilton.
The Word of Faith Family Church had argued that the investigation would violate the church’s constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
In another case, Renton School District 403 vs. Garnett, the court let stand a lower court ruling allowing students at a public high school in Washington state to form a religion club that would meet and hold prayer and Bible study.
School officials, backed by groups including the local AJCommittee chapter, had argued that recognizing such a club would violate church-state separation provisions of Washington state law.
But the Washington state provisions clashed with, and were found to be subordinate to, federal law requiring equal access for religious groups.
Another church-state case that could come before the court this term is one involving a Hasidic school district in New York state.
The case, Grumet vs. Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel School District, asks whether a special public school district set up for handicapped Hasidic children violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
The New York state Court of Appeals ruled in July that the district “inescapably conveys a message of governmental endorsement of religion.”
Ginsburg, a former appeals court judge here in Washington, did not handle many church-state cases on the appeals court.
But many in the Jewish community expect she will be more in line with their views on the issue than was her Supreme Court predecessor, Justice Byron White. Jewish groups often clashed with White over his position on church-state cases.
Ginsburg follows in the footsteps of a string of Jewish justices who filled a so-called “Jewish seat” on the high court from 1916 to 1969.They included Justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Abe Fortas.