Federal civil rights laws protect employees from harassment and discrimination by their employers and their agents, and "agents" are generally interpreted to mean supervisors.

Aggrieved employees and their attorneys have long sought to expand the definition of supervisor beyond someone with the power to hire, fire, demote and discipline to enlarge the pool of those they can sue. Now the issue is before the Supreme Court for a hoped-for final resolution.

The case involves a black food service worker at Ball State University who claims she was subjected to racial slurs from a catering specialist with whom she worked. Both a federal judge and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments that the catering specialist was the woman's supervisor, observing that she had no authority to hire, fire, discipline or demote.

Now that the case is in front of the nation's nine highest-ranking judges, the Obama administration is arguing for a broader definition of supervisor as someone who controls "the daily work activities" of others. The justices, in hearing the arguments, seemed split between the liberal and conservative wings, but they gave no indication if they would issue a binding definition.