The New American Caste System: The Supreme Court and Discrimination Among Civil Rights Plaintiffs

Fifteen percent of the decisions issued by the Supreme Court during its 1996-97 Term centered around section 1983. Section 1983 provides civil rights plaintiffs with a procedural mechanism for vindicating their federally protected rights, including those enshrined in the Constitution. The Court’s decisions from its 1996-97 Term reflect a continuation of the alarming trend that has permeated section 1983 for the last two decades-a movement to decrease the scope of section 1983, regardless of the impact on constitutional rights. The Supreme Court appears to be creating a hierarchy both of constitutional rights and of plaintiffs: free speech and takings claims are favored at the top of the heap, while prisoner civil rights actions and suits against police officers are disfavored at the bottom of the heap. In this Article, Professor Koehn explores the section 1983 decisions from the 1996-97 Term and concludes that they raise a troubling concern that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Supreme Court is creating a system in which prisoners, Indians, and persons suing police departments are not entitled to full constitutional protection.