As published in the June 28, 2007 issue of The Seattle Times.
Pay-equity ruling highlights importance of lawmakers
By Julia K. Stronks, J.D., Ph.D.
In May, the Supreme Court handed down Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber. This was a pay-discrimination case that was widely perceived as a conservative-justice bloc limiting the ability of women to seek redress for pay inequity.
It is true that the conservative judges voted together and the liberal judges joined Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a stinging rebuke. She said that the court was demonstrating that it had little understanding of the workplace realities that women face.
However, the case was less about discrimination than it was about the interpretation of a statute, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This is important because most of the so-called "hot issue" cases the court took this year were similarly about trying to understand the wording and intent of Congress' action.
Lilly Ledbetter had been employed by Goodyear for almost 20 years. When she resigned, she argued that pay discrimination on the basis of gender had resulted in an annual salary that had been several thousand dollars below that of male employees similarly situated. The law required that Ledbetter bring her case before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the discriminatory act.
The issue before the Supreme Court was this: If a discriminatory act occurred long before the 180 days but resulted in pay inequity during the 180 days, may a case still be brought?
The details of the law had not been laid out clearly. It was not clear when the 180 days should begin ticking; it was not clear if the key was if litigants knew or should have known when the discrimination first occurred, and it was not clear if Congress wanted paycheck issues to be treated in exactly the same way that denial-of-raise issues were treated.
In its 5-4 ruling against Ledbetter, the court concluded Congress must have wanted the 180 days to begin counting at the time the company made its pay decisions — not at the time of subsequent paychecks.
This highlights something that we voters are likely to forget as we enter into the upcoming presidential debate and election cycles. The Supreme Court is important. The presidency is important. But, the most important job we voters have is to select legislators who carefully, intentionally craft just and clear laws.
It is said that there are two things we should never watch being made: laws and sausage. Compromises, the influence of lobbyists, trading of favors and the addition of "riders" irrelevant to the law at hand demonstrate that the lawmaking process can be an ugly thing.
Title VII, for example, passed in a way that caused those of us committed to gender equity to laugh and to cringe at the same time. On Feb. 8, 1964, the day the Title VII employment law was to be voted on, the text of the law protected employees only on the basis of categories like race, religion and ethnicity. At the last minute, Virginia Rep. Howard Smith, who was opposed to all civil-rights legislation, proposed that the category "sex" be added to the list of protections. He was certain that this addition would doom the law. To his surprise, he was incorrect and the law passed anyway.
If citizens are unhappy with the way the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII, Congress can change it. That is the way self-government works. But, it's hard to predict the lawmaking process and it can be hard to fix things once they are in place. We have to be attentive in our selection of legislators. We need representatives and senators who are smart and careful. We need representatives and senators who can resist a lobbyist who funds them, and who can predict the questions that may arise when any given law is applied in the real world.
In the coming year, we must pay attention to the presidential race, but we must not lose sight of our most important job. The Constitution gives legislators the most power because they are the closest to the people. We, the people, must choose legislators with care.
Julia K. Stronks has a law degree and holds a Ph.D. in American government. She is a professor of political science at Whitworth University, and author of the books "Law, Religion and Public Policy: A Commentary on First Amendment Jurisprudence" (Lexington Books, 2002) and "Christian Teachers in Public Schools" (Baker Books, 2000).