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Life vs. the law

By reading statutes too rigidly in rendering opinions, the Supreme Court can be in denial of reality.

May 31, 2007

RARELY DOES the Supreme Court do more damage to its stature than when it ignores facts in order to achieve legal results. That tendency was on display this week as the court's increasingly familiar conservative bloc attempted to bend life as most know it into one the court would prefer.

The case involved Lilly Ledbetter, a Goodyear tire plant supervisor who discovered that she had been paid less than her male colleagues for much of her long career. Once she discovered this discrepancy, she filed discrimination charges. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed, finding that each of her paychecks represented a separate act of discrimination; a jury concurred. But the court overturned that conclusion and found that she could recover damages only for checks issued within six months of her claim. Never mind that Ledbetter did not know of the pay discrepancy for years. The court found that she "should have filed an EEOC charge within 180 days after each allegedly discriminatory employment decision was made and communicated to her."

That statement says volumes about the majority in this case. By reading the relevant sections of civil rights law narrowly, the majority concluded that Ledbetter was required to file charges at the time her employer decided to pay her less than men she worked with. It assumed that act of discrimination would be "made and communicated to her." But employers that pay their employees unfairly do not, at least in the world most of us inhabit, communicate those acts of discrimination. And unlike employees who are fired or denied promotions, victims of pay disparity often don't find out about it within 180 days -- or ever.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attempted to call the court's attention to those real-world facts. Pay disparity often starts small and grows over time -- in Ginsburg's words, "insidious discrimination building up slowly but steadily." Ordinarily, employees do not know the salaries of their colleagues, so they don't even know to complain.

Fortunately, we have civil rights laws, and Congress already is moving to undo this week's ruling, a statutory interpretation and thus one it can and should correct. Unfortunately, Congress is left to act because the Supreme Court has read the law so rigidly that it has misread life.

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