The goal of the century
The Intercept and the American Prospect launched a new joint project yesterday, a look at the many untapped ways that Congress can counteract Supreme Court decisions. The case of Lilly Ledbetter is instructive.
From 1979 until her retirement in 1998, Ledbetter worked at Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s plant in Gadsden, Alabama. Once she had left the job, she learned a disturbing fact. When Ledbetter had started, her supervisor salary was comparable to men in similar positions. But with each performance review, the men she worked alongside got bigger raises, and she gradually fell further and further behind. By the time she retired, she was earning $3,727 a month: hundreds of dollars less than the lowest-paid man in her position, and significantly below the average man.
Ledbetter took Goodyear to court, alleging a blatant violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which guarantees equal treatment in the workplace. But in 2007, the Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations on her claims had expired, and she could no longer seek redress. She would have had to file her claim shortly after Goodyear hired her, the court ruled. This was an absurd request — Ledbetter didn’t know how she was being cheated until she neared retirement — and it served to gut the ability of any woman to reasonably enforce the law.
The Supreme Court had issued what’s known as a statutory ruling, which is distinct from a constitutional ruling. In other words, the court had not deemed the law itself to be unconstitutional but merely ruled that the way the statute had been written rendered it unavailable to Ledbetter.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent that urged Congress to intervene. The court’s interpretation, Ginsburg said, was out of step with modern wage discrimination and the realities of the workplace. She recommended Congress amend the law and fix the court’s “parsimonious reading” so workers like Ledbetter could have a shot at restitution. Ginsburg added: “The ball is in Congress’ court.”
Ledbetter became a proxy for the cause of equal pay for equal work, and Democrats pledged to fight the ruling the first chance they got. And they did, rewriting the statute so that the clock would start ticking on the statute of limitations each time a discriminatory paycheck was issued, not at the time an employee was first hired. The very first piece of legislation President Barack Obama signed in 2009 was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
What makes Ledbetter so unusual is that Democrats have not similarly fought equally absurd yet consequential rulings from the Supreme Court, instead throwing their hands up in despair at the unfairness of a particular decision and then moving on.
But our joint review of hundreds of Supreme Court cases finds dozens of statutory rulings similar to Ledbetter’s that Congress could overturn simply by tweaking the statute to remove whatever ambiguity the court claimed to find in its text. Even where the court has ruled on constitutional grounds, there is often much room left to legislate the boundaries, just as conservatives have done in relation to Roe v. Wade and abortion restrictions. From salvaging the Voting Rights Act gutted by Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 to protecting workers’ free speech rights on the job or safeguarding reproductive rights, the list of cases awaiting a creative Congress runs long.
Whether the issue you care most about is climate change, wages, racial justice, or anything else, you’ll likely find cases here that apply. The whole piece is worth a read.
Alex Emmons also has an interesting look at the fight for the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
And George Chidi takes a close look at threats being made by Georgia Republican voters to boycott the upcoming runoffs. This could be fascinating.
Diego Maradona has died of a heart attack at the age of 60. If you’ve never watched it, here’s the clip of his “goal of the century.” And even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, you can’t help but be moved by the emotion in legendary announcer Victor Hugo Morales’ voice.