When institutionalized practices exacerbate inequities in the courtroom

Since its founding, our country has struggled with ensuring that its highest ideals guide the nation’s policies and practices. For example, the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Nevertheless, we regularly see this struggle playing out in our classrooms, our streets and along our borders – not everyone gets equal treatment.

This struggle also plays out in courthouses. In fact, when it comes to the awarding of damages, unequal treatment under the law has been institutionalized.  This case is very clearly laid out in the “How Race, Ethnicity and Gender Impact Your Life’s Worth: Discrimination in Civil Damage Awards” report, which was completed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law with funding from Silicon Valley Community Foundation.  This report shows how data based on a person’s race/ethnicity and gender are used to forecast his or her future income earnings in wrongful death or personal injury actions and describes how this practice perpetuates discrimination against women and people of color by reinforcing pay disparities and failing to account for future progress.

This practice is particularly harmful to children of color who have not had a chance to earn wages or indicate their professional interests and incentivizes corporations and other entities to allocate risk in minority, low-income communities.  Recent research has shown that business do, in fact, disproportionately target minority and low-income communities when determining where they should place hazardous waste sites.

Though the discriminatory use of gender- and race/ethnicity-based calculation of future earnings is a significant issue, very few state or federal reforms have been proposed to address it and none have been adopted. This report recommends that legislative action should be taken so that calculations of future income earnings in tort damage awards are not based on a person’s gender and race, and/or ethnicity.

SVCF has shed light on these types of inequity issues in the past (see our reports with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area on math misplacement and traffic  fees and fines) and will continue to use philanthropy to shed light and support systemic solutions to solve discriminatory practices.  Join us as we inform policy makers about the findings in the report from Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and fight to ensure that court practices do not continue to perpetuate discrimination against women and people of color.