Retroactive Application of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to Pending Cases

This Note addresses the applicability of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to cases pending on the Act’s date of enactment. Part I discusses current Supreme Court doctrine on the issue. This Part finds that the Court has endorsed two conflicting views on retroactively applying statutes to pending cases and that the lower federal courts consequently lack a principled framework for dealing with retroactivity issues in the 1991 Act. Part II describes the battle over the Civil Rights Acts of 1990 and 1991 and the subsequent confusion over the enacted statute’s reach. This Part finds that Congress provided conflicting textual guidance and useless legislative history, both of which fail to resolve the retroactivity issue. Part III rejects the use of a presumption to resolve the retroactivity question and instead provides an analytic framework for deciding the appropriate application of the Civil Rights Act. This approach acknowledges the potential dangers of retroactivity but requires courts to assess whether or not these risks should be determinative in the context of a given statute and cases arising under it. This Note concludes that courts should decide cases arising under the Act by applying the law in effect at the time of decision. Such application does not interfere with significant equitable or constitutional concerns, but rather promotes the goals of efficiency and fairness.