Monday, May 25, 2009

Supreme Court 11: Amendments

In previous posts in this series, I've described some rather devious methods by which politicians have gotten around Supreme Court decisions. There's a more direct way to do that, but it is often difficult to accomplish. Those difficulties are what drive politicians toward the devious routes.

The direct method to which I refer is for Congress to amend the law on which the offending Court decision is based.

When a Supreme Court decision is based on its interpretation of a congressional statute, Congress's remedy is to amend the statute. One such example is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. It was designed to overturn the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in the 2007 case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Lilly Ledbetter sued her employer, Goodyear, because male coworkers were more highly paid than she was. Goodyear successfully defeated her claim, on a procedural point. The Supreme Court found that the statute of limitations (a limitation on the period of time following an occurrence, during which a plaintiff can bring a lawsuit arising out of that occurrence) had expired. A minority of justices were of the opinion that the time limit cannot run out, as long as the disparate compensation is still being paid out.

Most Republicans supported the point of view that it would put an undue burden on employers to force them to defend themselves against claims brought long after the initial compensation decisions were made. But, with Republican power in Washington vastly reduced by the 2008 election, congressional Democrats passed the Ledbetter Act in January of this year, and President Obama signed it, nine days after his inauguration.

The 2009 legislation wrote into law the rule that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg advocated in her minority opinion in the Ledbetter case, i.e., that the statute of limitations in such cases resets with each pay period. In a not-very-subtle conclusion to that opinion, Ginsburg noted that, "once again, the ball is in Congress’ court. As in 1991, the Legislature may act to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII." Congress followed her suggestion.

Reversing a statutory interpretation is relatively simple. But what about constitutional cases? Stay tuned.

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