R. Shep Melnick, Boston College

The Great Debate over the Civil Rights State

Mon, 04/05/2010
4:30-6 PM, Kerstetter Room, Marx Hall
Event Category: 

We hope you will join us for a LAPA Seminar with R. Shep Melnick, Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. Professor of American Politics at Boston College.  His commentator will be Sarah Staszak,  Post-doctoral Fellow in the Department of Politics and the James Madison Program.

As always, the LAPA format asks that seminar participants familiarize themselves with the paper in advance. The commentator will open the session by summarizing the main themes in the paper and presenting some topics for discussion. The author then has the right of first response before we open to the floor for questions. The seminar will end with a brief reception in the Kerstetter Room, giving everyone a chance to mingle and meet.

Professor Melnick writes: "Over the past two decades the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts have issued a number of controversial civil rights decisions.  When it has faced the highly charged issue of whether the Constitution and civil rights legislation are "color-blind," the Court has waffled, managing to infuriate its critics while disappointing its friends. The Court has been significantly more consistent and successful in altering the complex institutional arrangements the federal government has developed over the past 50 years to interpret and enforce civil rights laws.  In a wide variety of cases dealing with seemingly dull, technical issues—such as private rights of action, congressional authority to abrogate the states' Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, the rulemaking authority of administrative agencies, statutes of limitations, the burden of proof at each stage of employment discrimination litigation, and official immunity under §1983—the Supreme Court has chipped away at the power of federal judges, administrators, and legislators.  Behind these decisions lie not just competing understandings of the meaning of civil rights, but rival visions of the contemporary civil rights state.  My objective in this paper is not to condemn one of these approaches and laud the other, but rather to describe as clearly as I can the nature of these two visions—which I call Egalitarian Nationalism and Reconstructed Federalism—and to explain the significance of the myriad incremental changes wrought by the Court in recent years."

R. Shep Melnick is the Thomas P. O'Neill. Jr. Professor of American Politics at Boston College.  He is the author of two books published by the Brookings Institution, Between the Lines: Interpreting Welfare Rights (1994) and Regulation and the Courts: The Case of the Clean Air Act (1983).  He is currently working on a book on "The Supreme Court and the Civil Rights State."  He received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught at Harvard and Brandeis before moving to Boston College.  He has also been a Research Associate at Brookings, President of the New England Political Science Association, and an elected member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

Sarah Staszak studies and teaches on the role of the institutional judiciary in American politics. Her recently defended doctoral project (September 2009), "The Politics of Judicial Retrenchment," examines the efforts of political and legal actors to constrict judicial authority and access to the courts since the rights revolution.  She is a former Brookings Institution Research Fellow in Governance Studies and Gordon Center for American Public Policy Graduate Fellow. Her research interests include courts and public policy, legal institutions, jurisprudence, and American political development.