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Supreme Court rulings have local impact.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week, handed down three decisions which could have important implications for many municipal ordinances. The decisions will affect many local government ordinances which: favor minority owned businesses in public contract bidding; allow the impositions of stiffer penalties for hate crimes; and prohibit animal sacrifice in religious ceremonies.

Set-Aside Ordinances

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court made it easier for contracting firms to challenge the legality of laws which set aside a certain amount of public contracts for minorities.

This decision could have a devastating effect on city minority set-aside laws because businesses now will need only show that they were treated differently from minorities in order to challenge such a law.

The Court recognized the right of the Northeast Florida Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA) to sue the city of Jacksonville over a law which set aside 10 per cent of the city's public contracts for minority owned businesses. This decision reversed the Federal Appeals Court which dismissed the case for lack of standing, without deciding the validity of the law.

This decision extends potential liability to cities and towns another step because the Richmond ordinance is the only set-aside law to be struck down so far.

The National League of Cities filed a "friend of the court" brief supporting Jacksonville's position and arguing that AGCA had failed to satisfy the "injury fact" requirement for standing because it had not shown that some of its members would have received city contracts had the set-aside law not existed.

The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, rejected this strict definition of "injury in fact" saying: "The injury in fact in an equal protection case of this variety is the denial of equal treatment resulting from the imposition of the barrier, not the ultimate inability to obtain the benefit."

Hate Crimes

In another decision, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states may impose stiffer penalties on persons convicted Of committing hate crimes. This decision is important because it is estimated that 20 other states and an unknown number of cities have ordinances similar to the challenged Wisconsin law, and because the Court cleared up the confusion as to what type of laws regarding hate crimes are acceptable.

Wisconsin's law allows for stiffer prison sentences for crimes already on the books if the defendant "intentionally selects the person [or] property because of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry of the person or the owner or occupant of the property."

In making its decision, the Court distinguished a case last year where a St. Paul ordinance was ruled unconstitutional because it violated the 1st Amendment guarantee of free speech. The ordinance prohibited the display of any symbol (such as a burning cross) that a person had reason to know "arouses anger, alarm, or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender. "

Chief Justice Rehnquist's opinion emphasized that the St. Paul ordinance was unconstitutional because it was specifically directed at expression. While on the other hand, Wisconsin's law extended the amount of punishment for acts such, as assault or vandalism, which have already been determined to be crimes in their own right and which are "not by any stretch of the imagination expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment."

Animal Sacrifice

The third of the Court's decisions pertaining to cities last week ruled a series of Hialeah, Fla. ordinances against animal sacrifice unconstitutional because they violated the right to free exercise of religion.

The Court ruled that laws which banned the ritual sacrifice of chickens, lambs, goats and other animals were unfairly directed at followers of the Santeria religion.

Hialeah's lawyers had argued that the laws were passed to protect public health, but this argument was rejected because the laws did not apply to most secular killings of animals (e.g. butchers, slaughterhouses).

The Court stated laws targeting religious belief can be justified only by a compelling reason and be specifically written because of that reason. The Court ruled that Hialeah's laws failed to meet these criteria. Tom Provost, a summer intern in NLC's Center for Policy and Federal Relations, will be a third year law student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
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Author:Provost, Tom
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jun 21, 1993
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