A Step Toward Realizing the Intent of the Equal Protection Clause

Constitutional scholars may well look back on last week’s decision in Fitzgerald v. Barn-Stable Committee et. al as another watershed marker in civil rights jurisprudence.  In Fitzerald, parents sued their daughter’s school district for failing to adequately respond to sexual harassment their daughter experienced on the bus.  Rather than address the harassment, the school district suggested transferring the daughter to a different bus.  In response, the parents brought suit under both Title IX and 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, the federal law authorizing lawsuits for civil rights violations.

The parents lost their claims at both the trial court and appellate levels.  Each held that the school district had acted reasonably to the alleged discrimination and that the parents could not bring an Equal Protection claim because Title IX was intended to be the sole relief for victims of gender discrimination in school.

In reversing both the lower court and the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals the Supreme Court held unanimously that a victim of gender discrimination should not be barred from pursuing simultaneous Title IX and 1983 claims because the statutes are far from similar. Significantly, the Court reasoned that in passing civil rights statutes like Title IX, Congress did not intend to limit or eliminate people’s ability to protect their Constitutional rights with 1983 claims.

Section 1983 claims are essentially vehicle claims.  That means that people access the ability to protect and enforce Constitutional rights–such as protection from unreasonable search and seizure–due process through Section 1983.  It is perhaps the most significant arrow in the citizen’s quiver, and the Fitzgerald decision ratifies that fact.  Had the Court upheld the lower courts’ rulings, citizens would have far fewer enforceable Constitutional rights as 42 U.S.C. 1983 would have been read into obscurity.  This ruling, however, guarantees that the do not stray too far from the path first laid by Brown v. Board of Education and Tinker v. Des Moines.  One could even say this decisions puts us back on solid Constitutional footing for what feels like the first time in at least a decade.