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Supreme Court Rules On Two Closely Watched Discrimination Cases

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A divided Supreme Court has handed down decisions today in two closely-watched cases. The court revived a challenge to Alabama's Republican-drawn legislative maps. It's the first time the high court has looked at the Voting Rights Act since it threw out an essential part of that law two years ago. The justices also voted 6-3 to allow a former UPS driver to sue the company over allegations it discriminated against her while she was pregnant. With us to talk more about these cases is NPR's Carrie Johnson. Welcome Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: So let's start with the voting case in Alabama. What happened there?

JOHNSON: In this case, black legislators and Democrats in Alabama had argued the Republican majority unlawfully packed minority voters into districts already held by minorities. Of course, there's been a long history of voting allegations in Alabama. And in fact, today, by coincidence, marchers are arriving in Montgomery to celebrate the anniversary of the historic civil rights march from Selma 50 years ago. But in this case, the lower court in Alabama threw out the lawsuit. And today, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to revive it, at least for now.

CORNISH: What basis did the justices give for reviving this?

JOHNSON: Well, the holding by Justice Stephen Breyer is relatively limited. He essentially says the lower court made several errors in legal analysis, starting with analyzing the situation across the entire state, instead of specific legislative districts as the law requires. Breyer wrote (reading) asking the wrong question may well have led to the wrong answer.

And he attracted swing Justice Anthony Kennedy to vote with the court's liberals here.

CORNISH: And as you note, this vote was 5 to 4 in the Alabama voting case. What did the dissenting justices have to say?

JOHNSON: True to form, Audie, Justice Antonin Scalia blasted what he called a sweeping and fantastical ruling by the majority. He faults the majority for letting the plaintiffs take a mulligan - in essence, a do-over to argue their theories one more time in the lower court. And he said it's not clear anybody who sued was actually harmed in Alabama by the districting plan. Justice Clarence Thomas also piled on. He said this is nothing more than a fight over the best racial quota.

CORNISH: Carrie, I want to talk next about that other dispute involving discrimination - this one about pregnant workers.

JOHNSON: Peggy Young, who's a part-time driver at UPS, sued because the company wouldn't give her a lighter-duty job when she got pregnant. Drivers there had to be able to lift about 70 pounds of heavy packages. She just couldn't do that while she was pregnant. Young said UPS had accommodated a whole bunch of other kinds of employees who needed light duty - people who were hurt on the job and Audie, even people who had lost their driver's licenses because they were charged with DUIs. And she said that just wasn't fair to pregnant women, an argument known as disparate treatment. The lower court threw out her lawsuit, but the high court today, again led by Stephen Breyer, revived it. He said that Young should be able to try to prove her case by example, citing evidence of treatment of large numbers of pregnant women versus other kinds of employees.

CORNISH: Now, obviously, it's still early, but is there any sense of how this ruling could play out for women around the country?

JOHNSON: Well, there's already been something of a change in the law since Peggy Young got pregnant and got involved in this dispute with UPS. Back in 2008, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act to give some accommodations for employees who needed light duty because they had problems standing or lifting things. But advocates are still pushing Congress to pass legislation to protect more pregnant workers out there.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson on today's decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.