The Supreme Court of the United States mandated reconsideration in a racial discrimination suit against Comcast, holding that the appeals court should apply a stricter test before moving the case forward again. The unanimous opinion, delivered by Justice Neil Gorsuch, was decided away from the bench, breaking tradition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined except for a footnote and concurred in part and in the judgment. Respondent National Association of African American-Owned Media, and Entertainment Studios, are represented in the case by Erwin Chemerinsky and Petitioner Comcast is represented by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
African-American owned Entertainment Studios claims it consistently tried to have its channels carried by Comcast, but Comcast refused to make a deal with them even though they were expanding their contracts with other white-owned channels.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined Entertainment Studios only needed to show that racial discrimination was one of the factors in the decisions and ruled in their favor. Comcast claimed when they appealed the decision to the Supreme Court that the appeals court made it too easy to sue under the statute and it should more closely match the standards in other civil rights cases. The case was argued before the Supreme Court on November 13, 2019.
The Supreme Court, in their decision on March 23, agreed with Comcast’s argument that Entertainment Studios needs to allege that they would have received the contract if there was not racial bias. “All the traditional tools of statutory interpretation persuade us that §1981 follows the usual rules, not any exception. To prevail, a plaintiff must initially plead and ultimately prove that, but for race, it would not have suffered the loss of a legally protected right,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. The case will be heard again in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Comcast was happy with the decision of the Court. “We are pleased the Supreme Court unanimously restored certainty on the standard to bring and prove civil rights claims,” the company said in a statement. “The well-established framework that has protected civil rights for decades continues. The nation’s civil rights laws have not changed with this ruling; they remain the same as before the case was filed.” It claims the decision was based on business reasons and low ratings of the shows, not on race.
Byron Allen, the owner of Entertainment Studios, said “this is a very bad day for our country,” and the decision is “harmful to the civil rights of millions of Americans.” He also said he will continue the debate by asking Congress to revise the statute in question.
Civil rights advocates involved in the case, including the NAACP, were also not pleased with the decision and claimed it will make it harder for discrimination victims to be heard in court. “This ruling weakens our nation’s oldest civil rights statute and may shut the courthouse door on some discrimination victims who, at the complaint stage, may simply be without the full range of evidence needed to meet the court’s tougher standard,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a prepared statement.