Justices to Review Same-Sex Harassment Case
By Joan Biskupic
Taking up an issue that has drawn national attention and divided lower courts, the Supreme Court said yesterday it would decide whether federal law prohibiting sexual harassment on the job covers incidents involving workers of the same sex.
Although most sexual harassment cases entail a supervisor or worker of one sex victimizing a worker of the opposite sex, courts increasingly have struggled with incidents of harassment between people of the same sex. The question in the new case, which will be heard in the term that begins next fall, is whether the victim of same-sex harassment is covered by the principal federal statute protecting workers against job discrimination.
In the case of Oncale v. Sundowner, a male roustabout on an offshore drilling rig alleged that three male co-workers sexually harassed him, with physical attacks, taunts and threats of rape. "I'm going to get you," one of the men allegedly said. "You're going to give it to me." The victim, Joseph Oncale, complained to supervisors, who allegedly did nothing to stop the abuse. Eventually, Oncale said he was forced to quit.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit threw out the harassment case brought against Sundowner Offshore Services and workers John Lyons, Danny Pippen and Brandon Johnson. The court said Congress intended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to cover only harassment between men and women.
In other cases, courts have drawn the opposite conclusion. As one judge declared: "Harassment is harassment regardless of whether it is caused by a member of the same or opposite sex."
The Justice Department, which urged the high court to take up the case, argues that the law should cover same-sex cases. "It should be irrelevant whether the supervisor and the employee are of the same or opposite sex," the Justice Department said in a filing on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "[C]ongress drafted a provision that broadly prohibits discrimination because of sex, without regard to the gender of the victim or the discriminator."
In separate action, the court ruled unanimously that an Illinois man convicted of murder should have a chance to show he was denied a fair trial because the trial judge was biased. The judge ended up being convicted of corruption in other cases as part of a huge federal investigation into judicial corruption in the Chicago area.
Asserting that due process of law requires a fair trial before a fair judge, the court said death row inmate William Bracy should be able to collect evidence and be able to challenge his conviction in a case that involved Cook County trial judge Thomas J. Maloney, who was convicted of taking bribes and "fixing" other murder cases. Bracy claimed that the judge may have convicted him as a means of appearing tough and thus deflecting suspicion that he was being paid to let other defendants off lightly. Lower courts had thrown out Bracy's case but the Supreme Court reinstated it yesterday, saying in the opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist that the usual presumption that judges have properly discharged their official duties was soundly rebutted in this case, Bracy v. Gramley.
The court also announced yesterday that it would review salvage rights between states and treasure hunters in the case of a ship called the Brother Jonathan that sank 132 years ago. The California-based Deep Sea Research discovered the wreck deep off the coast of Crescent City, Calif., and sought exclusive salvage rights in federal court. State officials protested, trying to claim ownership. The state lost in lower courts and its appeal, California v. Deep Sea Research, will be heard and resolved in the term that begins next fall.
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