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Contrary to its assertions, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Patterson decision marks a stark departure from the federal courts' former practice of according Congressional civil rights enactments a broad reading to effectuate their remedial purposes. Indeed, Patterson offers an exceedingly narrow interpretation of this nation's oldest civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

In addition to its effect on the scope and application of § 1981, Patterson must be read in conjunction with several other decisions issued during the same term that limit—indeed retreat from—the application of civil rights laws designed to restore both lost opportunities and stolen dignity of victims of irrational discrimination. The new standard treats civil rights statutes as ordinary tort laws subject to cramped and limited interpretation.

The Patterson Court, however, does not forthrightly admit either that it has changed the applicable standards or that it may be executing some new but unspoken agenda regarding civil rights enforcement. This article criticizes the Patterson decision for improperly narrowing § 1981, which had been enacted to guaranty fair treatment by proscribing racial discrimination in contractual transactions. Similarly, this Article disagrees with the radical shift in analysis ordered by Patterson and other decisions of the October 1988 Supreme Court term, which sounds a serious retreat from vigorous enforcement of those laws that reflect this nation's dedication to ensure humane and decent treatment for all persons regardless of such untenable factors as race. This article critiques not only the Patterson decision, but also many of the Court's recent civil rights rulings.

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21 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 401 (1990).