ANALYSIS - US Supreme Court Could Gut Business Discrimination Law Unless Chief Justice Breaks Ranks

WASHINGTON (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 21st November, 2019) ASHINGTON, November 21 (Sputnik), Barrington M. Salmon - A US Supreme Court case could end up allowing the Justice Department to weaken a historic business discrimination law unless at least one high court justice is willing to cross ideological lines, civil rights and legal experts told Sputnik.

On November 13, the US Supreme Court began hearing arguments over a $20 billion lawsuit Black media mogul Byron Allen brought against cable television giant Comcast, accusing the provider of racial discrimination for refusing to carry any of his studio's channel offerings.

Trump administration lawyers, in an unusual move, have intervened to support Comcast and challenge a historic business civil rights law.

In two separate 2016 lawsuits, Allen's Entertainment Studios and the National Association of African American-Owned Media, accused Comcast and Charter Communications of violating key provisions of a 153-year old Civil War-era law that provides discrimination protections in labor and contracts for Blacks.

According to Section 1981 of the US Civil Rights Act of 1866, all people in the United States, specifically Blacks, have "the same rights to make and enforce contracts enjoyed by white citizens."

Allen's case was dismissed three times by lower US district courts, but the Ninth Circuit Court reversed those decisions on appeal. Comcast's appeal of the circuit court decision led to the company seeking a review from the US Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration through the Justice Department signed on as a friend of the court, siding with Comcast, a move largely seen as the administration's intent to weaken section 1981.

The US Federal government's decision to back Comcast sparked outrage and stiff resistance from civil rights groups across the United States.

In October, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in support of Allen filed a friend of the court brief that represents 22 civil and human rights groups.

Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Litigation Director Dorian Spence told Sputnik that more is at stake than network licenses.

"This particular case is the most important or one of the most important in this Supreme Court term," Spence said. "It could place impossible standards on plaintiffs."

Increasing the standard, he added, places another hurdle before minority plaintiffs and victims seeking relief.

"If you're an independent contractor, you should have the same opportunities as your white counterpart," Spence argued.

Allen has said he never asked for the case to be considered by the Supreme Court. However, the media mogul also said he would not withdraw the lawsuit and remains confident they will prevail.

The fate of this historic Supreme Court case, according to experts, will hinge on both the legal argument and the willingness of justices to transcend partisan blinders.

The nine-seat US Supreme Court is ideologically divided with the majority held by conservatives. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, has in the past diverged from the majority but several civil rights activists have been critical of his voting record.

Allen underscored the crux of his argument to Variety magazine last week, saying that Comcast has $70 billion in network licenses yet none have been issued to a single African-American owned media outlet.

Comcast, for its part, said it decided not to run Allen's shows due to legitimate business reasons including limited bandwidth and operational considerations.

According to the Ninth District Court ruling, Allen only had to demonstrate plausible claims that race was a motivating factor in Comcast's decision in order for his case to proceed.

Political scientist, talk show host and author Dr. Wilmer Leon, III said this is exactly the key question the Supreme Court must consider. The court will have to decide what degree of discrimination has to be shown in a case of this nature.

"Even though the Court has held in the past that a person has to show discrimination, in fact you can't just infer discrimination, you have to show that the party being sued intended to discriminate - de jure versus de facto discrimination," Leon told Sputnik.

Comcast, Leon explained, is saying race has to be the only motivating factor while Allen is saying race only has to be a part of the reason for refusing to run his shows.

The plaintiff would have a stronger case, Leon continued, if there is evidence that the cable giant tried to prevent Allen from becoming another Black billionaire media magnate like Robert "Bob" Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television.

"If Byron Allen can prove that a Comcast executive said the company doesn't want to create anymore Bob Johnsons, he's standing on pretty solid ground," he said.

Leon also said that while the final verdict may be close, he liked Allen's odds of winning.

"I think he [Allen] is going to win 5-4 with Chief Justice [John] Roberts being the deciding vote," Leon predicted.