Friday, June 1, 2007

Conservative high court shifts ?justice? to favor the powerful

The most enduring of President George W. Bush's legacies for years to come will be a justice system whose conservative judicial appointees favor big corporations and the politically powerful.

After years of establishing the rights of the needy and the abused, the U.S. Supreme Court is reverting to the mindset of judges long past who dismissed racial, gender and age discrimination as acceptable abuses in a mostly white, male-dominated, big business society.

That was apparent this week in the high court's 5-4 ruling that imposed an almost impossible 180-day statute of limitations on the right of workers to sue for blatant wage discrimination in the workplace.

Until Lilly Ledbetter's case reached the Supreme Court, she had fared well in lower courts. She'd won a $3.8 million damage verdict for nearly 20 years of accumulated pay discrimination at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama where she was the only woman among 16 supervisors.

But her right to sue vanished when the Supreme Court majority, using reasoning that fair-minded jurists will find tortured and unsupportable, ruled Ledbetter's 1998 lawsuit was invalid because she should have filed a complaint within 180 days after the pay discrimination occurred.

Ledbetter's pay at first equaled those of men in the same position, but over time her earnings didn't increase as quickly, resulting in earnings 40 percent below male peers.

How absurd for the court's justices to suggest that grounds for her complaint would've been justified if filed 180 days from her last pay raise, instead of after 20 years of pay discrimination.

This infuriated Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She broke her tradition for written dissent and verbally lashed out at the decision written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., a Bush appointee, pointing out that previous court decisions, the Civil Rights Act and decisions of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uniformly sided with Ledbetter.

Ginsburg pointed out that given the secrecy that surrounds wages in most companies, it would have been nearly impossible for Ledbetter to determine that she had suffered pay discrimination within 180 days of the date the discrimination began.

One court watcher, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan, observed after the Ginsburg dissent, "What she (Justice Ginsburg) is saying is that this is not law, it's politics."


Before ending her unusual, verbal dissent, Justice Ginsburg broke another tradition. From the high court bench, she urged Congress to overturn the Ledbetter court decision with new laws, as it did nearly two decades ago with several offensive court decisions on civil rights.

Congress should quickly do just that.

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