Groups Look to Cases on Abortion, Segregation in Quiet Court Season

Jewish civil liberties groups are looking forward to a relatively quiet U.S. Supreme Court session in 2006-’07, with none of the major church-state issues that have roiled the community in recent years. The court abjured arguments on the first Monday in October, when it traditionally opens, so its two Jewish justices could observe Yom Kippur. The seven non-Jewish judges met to release the court’s docket.

The type of church-state cases that dominated Jewish interest in recent years, such as the display of religious artifacts in courts and public places, were absent.

Instead, Jewish groups are focused on two cases about issues that don’t directly affect Judaism as a religion, but that traditionally have held the attention of Jewish civil libertarians: abortion and segregation.

The court will hear two cases Nov. 8 in which federal courts struck down parts of the ban on partial-birth abortion, which President Bush signed into law in 2003. In Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, pro-choice groups argue that the legislation does not have adequate health exceptions for women at risk, and bans such abortions as early as 13 weeks into gestation.

Jewish groups opposed to the ban and filing friend-of-the court-briefs include the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the National Council of Jewish Women.

As recently as 2000, the court established that health exceptions are necessary in such laws, and the civil liberties groups are concerned that a court that now has a deeper conservative bench wants to revisit that precedent.

Sammie Moshenberg, who directs NCJW’s Washington office, said she was afraid her group would be saying “I told you so” about its opposition last year to the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice and Samuel Alito as justice.

“We worked hard against the confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts and Samuel Alito because their records showed they had a particular point of view when it came to reproductive rights that indicated they would not look kindly to precedent,” she said. “This is going to be the test. You never want to be proved right; there’s no great satisfaction when to comes to saying ‘I told you so’ when it comes to women’s lives and health.”

Agudath Israel of America, a group representing the fervently Orthodox, said it planned to support the government’s case in the partial-birth abortion matter.

The other case capturing Jewish interest involves attempts to desegregate districts in Seattle and Lexington, Ky. Groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs include the ADL, the American Jewish Committee and the NCJW. The Jewish groups favor the municipalities.

In both instances, the municipalities are introducing desegregation measures because natural demographic trends have rolled back desegregation efforts from the 1970s. In some cases, schools have become more than 85 percent minority.

Jewish interest was piqued because the Bush administration is backing parental groups that oppose the desegregation measures in the cases, Parents Involved v. Seattle and Meredith v. Jefferson County. The cases, which have been combined, will be heard in late November or early December.

The groups are concerned that the Bush administration will argue that the municipalities are backing affirmative action — something Jewish civil libertarians traditionally oppose as reverse discrimination — instead of understanding the initiatives as rolling back discrimination.

“These cases are not about the allocation of government benefits of power by race or the use of race in place of relevant personal characteristics in selecting persons in an application process,” said Deborah Lauter, ADL’s national civil rights director. “They’re rather about continuing desegregation root and branch.”

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