The US Supreme Court wrestled with technical legal arguments Wednesday in a high stakes civil rights case that pits Comcast against media mogul Byron Allen.
The high court heard oral argument in the contentious case between Comcast and Allen, an African American entertainment executive who claims the cable giant racially discriminated against him when it refused to carry his cable-TV channels on its systems.
The Supreme Court is not weighing the merits of Allen's claims. Still, a favorable ruling for Comcast could have far reaching consequences, legal experts say. That's because a Comcast win could set a legal precedent that would make it harder to bring racial-discrimination cases.
At issue before the court was whether a person filing a racial discrimination lawsuit under that law must allege that race was the determining reason a contract decision was made, or if a person must merely allege that race was one "motivating factor" for a case to proceed, according to legal experts.
During the hour-long hearing, both liberal and conservative justices suggested the lower court applied the wrong legal standard in allowing an Allen's case to go forward. They openly questioned why those alleging racial discrimination should need to claim only that race was a motivating factor, if they must ultimately prove that race was the main reason to win at trial.
"Wouldn't it be a little unusual for us to apply different legal standards at different stages of the same case?" Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, asked Allen's lawyer, Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of Berkeley Law.
Justice Elena Kagan, an Obama appointee, later said it "strikes me as confusing" to have different standards.
Chemerinsky said requiring the higher standard at the pleading stage would create an "insurmountable burden" on those alleging racial discrimination. He also argued that even if race is used as a motivating factor to deny a contract, "then there is not the 'same right'" that's promised in the civil rights law.
Allen filed his $20 billion suit under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a Reconstruction-era law that prohibits discrimination against African Americans in business contracts. Specifically, the law ensures everyone in the U.S. have the "same right" to make and enforce contracts.
Justice Sonia Sotomayer, an Obama appointee, said she saw nothing in the law's language requiring plaintiffs to allege that race was the determining reason for a business decision.