Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On Ledbetter v. Goodyear

In Ledbetter v. Goodyear, the Court reached another 5-4 ruling; another one that would have gone the other way had O'Connor still been on the Court.

I always recommend reading Linda Greenhouse's articles, so here's her explanation.

And here is some commentary that I find rather agreeable.

Down to business. At issue here is how to interpret a statute involving sexual discrimination in the workplace. The statute requires that complaints be filed within 180 days of a given incident. So, if a woman thinks that a male candidate for a job was chosen over her simply because of gender, she has 180 days to file a complaint. Fair enough. But, this case involves pay raises, something that affected women may not know about until well after 180 days.

Some specifics to this case. When hired, Ledbetter's salary was the same as her male counterparts', but over time, she consistently received smaller raises, allowing for a rather drastic gap in pay. Indeed, at the time of the complaint, she was making $3,727 a month, while the lowest-paid man was making $4,286, and the highest-paid man was making $5,236. The discrimination seems undeniable.

However, in order to file a complaint, she would have had to have done so within 180 days of any of the "incidents," or in other words, any of her raises. But she had no reason to believe that her raises were discriminatory. After all, when I received my last raise, I was sworn to secrecy; I assume most companies have very similar policies. So, she had little to no way of knowing that there was even an issue within the given 180 days. Look at it this way; she could find out about blatantly discriminatory practices 181 days after they happened, but according to the Court's (majority opinion authored by the fresh-faced Samuel A. Alito) interpretation of the statute, she would not be allowed to pursue legal action.

Of course, the majority claims that they are simply enforcing legislative intent. They provide a "strict" reading of the statute; 180 days means 180 days. No "legislating from the bench!" But, I have a hard time believing that the legislature that crafted this statute would have meant that Ledbetter would not be able to pursue legal action. Indeed, a strict reading of the words of the statute requires that the Court rule the way it did, but a "strict" reading is not always the best way to find legislative intent. It is likely that no legislators envisioned this sort of a scenario, and thus they did not necessarily intend for this to be the outcome.

Of course, given that this is a case of statutory interpretation (i.e. not Constitutional interpretation), Congress can rephrase the statute and, for all intents and purposes, overrule this ruling. The Court has used this logic many times in the past: if you don't like a law and it doesn't raise any Constitutional questions, take it up with Congress, not us! Fair enough; this same logic has been used to do some great things (to allow for the New Deal, for instance - but they were saying "Congress clearly intends this, you insane judges have to stop coming up with non-existant constitutional concepts to back up your laissez-faire ideologies"), but this is different. This is strict for the sake of being strict (or for the sake of giving women the shaft). The statute is clearly designed to do away with gender discrimination, so the Court is using the statute's words to work contrary to the statute's goals.

Maybe it's just me, but isn't ensuring the statute's goals more important than ensuring a strict reading of the words?

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