When it comes to civil rights, we tend to focus on the substance--do people of color get to go to school with white students?  do women get to decide whether or when to have a child? does the law treat same-sex couples fairly?

There are a whole range of cases decided by the Supreme Court (and other courts) each year that deal with more technical procedural issues, and though these cases don't often make it on to the front page, they can have enormous impact on whether someone who has been the victim of discrimination or unfair treatment by the government gets to have a day in court.

The Supreme Court decided two such cases this week.  The first, Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart, involved a federal statute designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination.  Under the statute, each state is required to set up a "Protection and Advocacy" organization, and the question in this case was whether that organization could sue the state of Virginia.  For reasons I have never understood, the Supreme Court believes that states have dignity, and that laws allowing people to sue states have to be very carefully written so as to not insult the state's dignity.  I've always thought it was more important to worry about a human being's dignity (like, for example, the dignity of a person with a disability who is forced to live in squalid subhuman conditions in a state hospital), but I'm not on the Supreme Court so what do I know.  In this case, the Court said that Virginia could be sued, in an opinion authored by Justice Scalia.

The second involved a federal religious protection statute (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA) that we have used here in Maine to protect a Hasidic Rabbi and a group of Muslims looking to establish a mosque.  In Sossamon v. Texas, the Court held that RLUIPA does not allow a person to recover money damages from the state when the state violates religious rights.  This is very significant, since it will be difficult for people to find lawyers to help with their cases if there is no chance of monetary recovery (many plaintiffs hire lawyers on a contingency basis--if they win, the lawyer gets some of the recovery; if they lose, the lawyer gets nothing).

These cases are not easy to understand, but they are critical.  If you can't get your foot in the courthouse door, you will never prevail on the substance of your claim.