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5 California Victories Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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Carrying placards and lighted torches on May 18, 1964, protesters picket the entrance to Fremont Place in Los Angeles.
Carrying placards and lighted torches on May 18, 1964, protesters picket the entrance to Fremont Place in Los Angeles. | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

Today marks the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a law ending the notion that Americans could be "separate but equal," paving the way for voting rights and racial equality.

"The Civil Rights Act is a living, breathing document that makes clear there are certain fundamental rights. It makes clear that there shall be equal access to education; equal access to the workplace; equal access to public accommodation; and equal
access to the ballot box," Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement.

Indeed, the Civil Rights Act also created a path to gender and religious equality, as well as protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia -- much of that battle for equality was fought here in California during the landmark battle over Proposition 8. The Americans with Disabilities Act made it illegal to discriminate based on disabilities. Among other cases, "Roe v. Wade" laid the foundation for California to become one of the states that is most protective of women's reproductive choice.

"In many respects, California is a leader in civil rights," says Bill Celis, an expert in education and civil rights at USC. "The state's 1959 civil rights act preceded President Johnson's landmark 1964 civil rights bill by five years. In school desegregation, the 'Mendez v. Westminster' case on school desegregation predates 'Brown v. Board of Education' by eight years, and California parents won in 1971 a case in which the state was forced by a federal court to offer equal funding of all public schools."

These were hard-fought victories, Celis admits, but he says what makes them special beyond the ground they broke is the diligence with which both the state and its judiciary system protected the decisions.

While these milestones don't mark the end of discrimination or rights violations, they demonstrate the legacy of a 50-year path to greater civil liberties in our country. Here, we look back at a few moments that had a significant impact on the Golden State.

A sign advertising abortion rights for a protest against the National Right-to-Life Convention in Anaheim.
A sign advertising abortion rights for a protest against the National Right-to-Life Convention in Anaheim. | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

"Roe v. Wade" Shapes California Reproductive Rights
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Texas law that made it a crime to help a woman get an abortion violated due process rights. While the decision did not have roots in California, it significantly improved safety and access to abortions in the state, according to Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Southern California.

The court's ruling left room for states to modify laws on reproductive rights, allowing California to become one of the staunchest protectors of reproductive rights and choice. In response to the decision, many states created laws limiting or regulating abortion, but having already legalized abortion in 1967, California took a different route -- it was one of a handful of states to pass a law maintaining the legality of abortion should "Roe v. Wade" be overturned.

Americans With Disabilities Act Ends an Era of Discrimination
Passed in 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on a person's disability in employment, state and local government programs, private and non-profit businesses, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. The amount of federal ADA lawsuits filed in California is far greater than any other state in the country. This flood of lawsuits, however, has been coupled with allegations of abusing the system. Nonetheless, more suits have been filed in the Golden State than Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and New York combined, and the state remains one of the strictest adherents to ADA accommodation requirements.

A group of young activists protest Proposition 187, which would deny benefits to illegal immigrants.
A group of young activists protest Proposition 187, which would deny benefits to illegal immigrants. | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

Proposition 187 Ruled Unconstitutional
Proposition 187, also known as the "Save our State" campaign, sought to cut off health care, public education, and welfare benefits to undocumented immigrants in California. The ballot initiative was approved by some 60 percent of voters in 1994, but a federal court deemed the proposition unconstitutional and the rule was never enforced. The court's decision molded California's political landscape, creating an environment that was less hostile toward immigrants. Twenty years later, legislators are moving to repeal provisions from Prop 187 with Senate Bill 396, which would permanently remove the measure from California's law books.

Prop 8 Meets its End
The Supreme Court struck California's same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8, in June 2013 as well as a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act in the same breath, allowing gay marriages to resume in the state. In a split 5-4 vote, the justices said they could not rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 because California officials failed to defend the law after it was overturned in an appeals court.

"It is not enough that the party invoking the power of the court have a keen interest in the issue," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., wrote for the majority, adding that "because we find that petitioners do not have standing, we have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the 9th Circuit."

"Riley v. California" Lays Foundation for Digital Rights
In a sweeping victory for digital rights, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in June that "police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cellphone seized from an individual who has been arrested."

David Riley was arrested in San Diego in August 2009, after a traffic stop resulted in the discovery of loaded firearms in his car. The police then took his phone, looking through his messages, contacts, videos, and photographs. Based in part on the data stored on Riley's phone -- the repeated use of a term associated with the "Bloods" street gang -- the state of California charged him in connection with a shooting that had taken place several weeks prior to his arrest. Authorities also sought a harsher sentence based on his gang affiliation. Riley moved to suppress the evidence the police pulled from his cell phone without a warrant, but the trial court denied the motion and he was convicted.

Because the digital content of a smartphone doesn't threaten officers' safety, the Supreme Court ruled the police's actions violated the fourth amendment's search and seizure protections.

"The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought," Roberts wrote in the court's majority opinion. "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple -- get a warrant."

While smartphone technology and the rights attached to it are new realms for the law to explore, this case has created a benchmark for civil rights in the digital age.

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