(The Root) — Criminal justice has always held a prominent place in the work of civil rights. From the trials of the Scottsboro boys; to the wrongful convictions in Tulia, Texas, in the 1990s; to the NAACP’s recent successful intervention on behalf of the Scott sisters, rooting out injustice in the criminal-justice system has long defined the essence of civil rights. Recently, civil rights litigation challenges to inequities in the criminal-justice system have taken on renewed importance.
As Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have gradually reduced the ability of those convicted to challenge criminal convictions by state courts under federal habeas corpus procedures, convicts have turned to 42 U.S. Code, Section 1983, the statute that enables individuals to sue state officials for interfering with rights held under the Constitution. Two cases before the Supreme Court this term raise what are known as “Section 1983” challenges that may have widespread consequences for the rights of criminal convicts.
One of those cases — Skinner v. Switzer (pdf) — was decided by the Supreme Court last week. In the decision, two of the court’s most conservative members — Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts — joined with the court’s moderates. In the 6-3 opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court held that a criminal defendant may properly invoke Section 1983 to challenge failure of the state prosecutors to test clothing found at the scene of a murder for traces of DNA evidence.