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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
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June 13, 2007
COURT OPINION BECOMES CAUSE FOR CONGRESS
Democrats Rally Against Dismissal of Woman's Bias Claim
Daily Journal Staff Writer
WASHINGTON - Members of Congress aren't shy in letting the Supreme Court know when they don't like one of its rulings.
It makes great political theater.
That was the case in Washington Tuesday as Democrats, including two from California, Reps. George Miller of Martinez and Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, welcomed with open arms the losing plaintiff in a Supreme Court case decided just two weeks ago.
Controversial 5-4 Decision
They paraded Lilly Ledbetter at a press conference, taking turns at praising her courage and fortitude as a victim of gender discrimination, an hour before she gave testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Ledbetter, a woman in her 70s from Alabama, was on the wrong end of a controversial 5-4 ruling from the high court on May 30 that overturned a lower court victory for Ledbetter in a discrimination lawsuit against her employer of 19 years.
The outcome delighted the business community while setting off a firestorm of criticism on the left.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the high court's only woman, showed her distaste for the decision by reading a fiery dissent from the bench, while women's groups and newspaper editorialists vented outrage.
Ledbetter's loss instantly became presidential election fodder courtesy of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic senator from New York, who praised both Ledbetter and Ginsburg for speaking out.
Timeliness at Issue
The court held in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., 2007 DJDAR 7573, that woman and minorities cannot sue their employers for long-ago discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Ledbetter won a jury trial against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. after she found out that she was paid 20 percent less than the lowest paid of her male colleagues.
But the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, ruled that Ledbetter had no grounds to sue because she had filed her claim years after the 180-day statute of limitations had expired.
Now Democrats are vowing to overrule the decision, claiming that the Supreme Court rode roughshod over previous court precedents that gave plaintiffs more time to file complaints.
"A slim majority of the Supreme Court shunned reason in order to satisfy its own narrow ideological agenda," Miller said. "Reason - and justice - demand a different result."
Lawmakers have not finished writing the bill yet, Miller admitted, but he indicated that it would likely make clear that the statute of limitations would not just apply to the original decision that led to the discriminatory act.
Therefore, plaintiffs like Ledbetter, who only found out about the discrimination years after the fact, could file a claim as long as it was within 180 days of the most recent paycheck that reflects the lower pay grade.
Tuesday's hearing is not the only time in recent years that a losing plaintiff has appeared before Congress to call for legislation.
Just two years ago, when Republicans were in charge, Susette Kelo testified against the high-profile Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London, 125 S. Ct. 2655.
Kelo, a homeowner in New London, Conn., had challenged the government's right to seize her home as part of an economic redevelopment project.
She lost, much to the disgust of Republican lawmakers, who like to champion property rights.
In that instance, the House passed legislation that would have reduced the impact of the decision, but the Senate didn't follow suit.
Congress has acted more decisively in reacting to Supreme Court decisions on national security issues.
In the last three years it has twice passed legislation responding to rulings questioning the legality of Bush administration processes set up to detain and try terrorism suspects.
Ledbetter herself appeared gratified that Congress is interested in her case when she spoke at the press conference surrounded by a half dozen Democrats.
She denounced the court for not taking into account the fact that many women, if they have some inkling that they are paid less, don't want to "rock the boat" in a male- dominated workplace.
"That isn't right and Congress should fix it," she said of the high court's decision.
In the House, Ledbetter's crusade has attracted some big names.
Joining her at the press conference was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Miller also wields influence as chair of the education and labor committee.
It is not yet clear whether the issue will be a priority in the Senate, although a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said legislation is in the pipeline.
Rep. Miller - in a reference to the Senate's recent failure to pass an immigration reform bill - suggested that legislation addressing Ledbetter's case would be considerably simpler.
"Even the Senate can figure out this one," the Congressman said.
Republicans are lukewarm at best about the prospect of changing the law.
Santa Clarita Rep. Howard McKeon, the ranking member of the House's health and labor committee, said Tuesday that it is an "open question" whether Congress should act.
Any changes should be careful not to tilt the balance too far against the employer, McKeon stressed.
Employers should not be "kept on the hook" for decades after the original discriminatory act occurred, he said.
The Bush administration sided with Goodyear in the case, so even if Congress does pass legislation over the objections of Republicans, the president could veto it.
Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker partner Neal D. Mollen, who testified at Tuesday's hearing on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said afterward that the threat of a veto would depend on whether Democrats seek to include Republicans in drafting a bill.
"It's difficult to say if the Democrats will go alone," he said. "If they do it wouldn't surprise me if it was unacceptable to the administration."