Connecting Supreme Court Actions to the Lives of ‘Everyday Americans’

October 19, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

Too many progressives have faltered in highlighting the impact nine justices on the nation’s highest court can have on the lives of millions of Americans. The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Simon Lazarus lays the case out over at CAC’s Text and History Blog, noting that during the second presidential debate an opportunity was missed to show how the conservative justices of the Roberts Court increasingly advance corporate interests, while making life tougher on individuals.

As Lazarus notes, a question from the town hall audience prompted the candidates try and address the ongoing lack of pay equity – women still earn significantly less than their male counterparts. President Obama responded by highlighting his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The law was named after the Alabama women who struggled to hold Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company accountable for paying her far less than men at the company doing the same work. After Ledbetter (pictured) sued the company, a jury found in her favor and awarded her hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. But the company appealed and the case eventually reached the high court in 2007. The rightwing bloc of the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire reversed course and found that Ledbetter could not move forward with her lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seeking equal pay for equal work. The rightwing justices essentially said that Ledbetter had waited too long to bring the action, even though she did not discover the discrimination until her retirement from the Goodyear Tire plant.

During this year’s ACS National Convention, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who lodged a dissent in Ledbetter, said the decision was “entirely out of touch with the real world of work.”

The Ledbetter Act trumps the high court’s out-of-touch majority opinion by allowing for a realistic timeframe for workers to bring employment discrimination cases.

But Lazarus says progressives, including the president, have failed to “take a cue from Senator [Patrick] Leahy, who has held numerous hearings over the past four years to ‘shine a light on how the Supreme Court’s decisions affect Americans’ everyday lives.’”

Lazarus continues:

The raw fact is that Congress overturned that decision with what for it constitutes truly blinding speed – one and one half years!  That history indicates that, while media types and politicians tend at first blush to turn up their noses at disputes which, on their face, concern legal minutiae between businesses or other large organizations and workers, consumers, retirees, depositors, or the like, in fact, the very “ordinariness” of the individual protagonists and their stories of mistreatment have great potential to resonate, if brought to the attention of equally ordinary Americans. Significantly, in April 2008, six Republican broke ranks to support a nearly successful motion to end the filibuster against the Democrats’ “fix” legislation – acknowledging, in effect, the political potency of the Ledbetter cause. 

Last year Leahy (D-Vt.) conducted a hearing exploring a string of Supreme Court opinions that protected corporations from individuals seeking to hold them accountable for corporate malfeasance. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, highlighted the Supreme Court’s 2011 opinion in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which shut down a large class action alleging widespread gender discrimination at the retailing giant. That opinion and others by the high court, Leahy said, provided “corporations additional power to act in their own self-interest” while limiting “the ability of Americans to have their day in court.” 

Other progressives have also worked to engage the public on the substantial impact the Supreme Court has on the lives of everyday Americans.

Earlier this month ACS released “Courts Matter: Justice on the Line,” spotlighting the importance the closely divided court can have on an array of pressing national concerns. The paper shows how with one more justice joining the high court’s rightwing bloc issues such as reproductive rights, marriage equality and voting rights all could be in jeopardy of being severely limited.

For instance, the ACS paper notes that the Court’s rightwing justices have revealed skepticism of a major enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain states and localities – those with histories of discriminating against minorities – to get preclearance from a federal court in Washington, D.C. or the Department of Justice of changes to elections laws. Some of those states, like Alabama, continue to argue that preclearance is no longer needed, even though evidence shows that efforts to suppress the votes of minorities still exist. 

As Lazarus reminds us, a much more widespread and concentrated effort is needed to expose the judicial actions that hobble or eviscerate longstanding and cherished protections and rights of some the nation’s most vulnerable among us.

[image via now_photos]