Centers on 1982 Suit
Thursday's case centered on a suit filed in 1982 by Patterson, a black bank teller from North Carolina, who alleged that for more than 10 years she had been insulted by her supervisor, given menial duties, and told that "blacks are known to work slower."
The bank denied that she was racially harassed and contended the law did not apply to her complaint.
A federal judge in North Carolina ruled that her case could not go before a jury because the 1866 law did not cover harassment. But when Patterson appealed to the Supreme Court, attorneys for the Ronald Reagan Administration sided with her. Such "racially motivated" mistreatment, if true, violates the 1866 law, the Justice Department said.
However, two months after hearing Patterson's appeal last year, the Supreme Court issued a stunning announcement. The five conservatives said they wanted to reconsider the entire landmark 1968 interpretation covering virtually all forms of racial discrimination.
The announcement set off a storm of protest in Congress and among civil rights groups. Two-thirds of the U.S. Senate, 47 of the 50 state attorneys general and dozens of civil rights organizations filed briefs urging the justices to leave the law as it was.
In one sense, the court did just that Thursday. "We now reaffirm that (the 1866 law) prohibits racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of private contracts," Kennedy said. To the relief of the civil rights community, the majority did not restrict it to literally only contracts and granted that it applied to hiring and promotions by private businesses and admission by private schools.
But it drew the line there. Nothing that can be construed as the making of a contract exists in conditions at the job or school after that point, the majority said.
Kennedy's opinion in Patterson vs. McLean Credit Union, 87-107, was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Byron R. White, Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor.
Thursday's ruling supplied new impetus to civil rights advocates and liberal members of Congress hoping to pass new laws to counter the effects of the court's recent race-related rulings.