President-elect Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress are already signaling a welcome new seriousness in Washington about protecting civil rights after eight years of erosion.
They are planning swift action on legislation to overturn an unjust 2007 Supreme Court decision that has made it much harder for people to challenge illegal discrimination in employment, education, housing and other fields.
The 5-to-4 ruling in 2007 involved Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Alabama. She received much smaller raises over several years than men in comparable positions.
Tossing aside longstanding legal precedents, government practice and a jury verdict in Ms. Ledbetter’s favor, the narrow Supreme Court majority decided that she was entitled to nothing. They ruled that Ms. Ledbetter should have filed her claim within 180 days of the very first decision to pay her less. The justices rejected the argument that each subsequent discriminatory paycheck was a new violation of the law.
The impact of the Ledbetter decision has been broad injustice. As Robert Pear reported in The Times on Monday, courts around the country have cited the decision hundreds of times as a reason for rejecting lawsuits claiming discrimination based on race, sex, age and disability, without regard to the underlying merits of the individual cases.
The House is expected to vote this week on a legislative fix that would restore the law’s original intent. The measure would state that a violation occurs each time a person receives a paycheck resulting from “a discriminatory compensation decision.” The Senate is expected to take up the bill soon after. It merits passage, along with a related bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which contains other useful steps for combating gender-based wage discrimination.
More from the Robert Pear article mentioned above:
Mr. Obama describes the bill as part of a broader effort by his incoming administration to “update the social contract,” reinvigorate civil rights and close the pay gap between men and women.
At issue in the Ledbetter case was the deadline for filing charges under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court did not deny that Ms. Ledbetter had suffered discrimination, but said she should have filed her claim within 180 days of “the alleged unlawful employment practice” — the initial decision to pay her less than men performing similar work.
The Supreme Court rejected the argument that each paycheck was a violation of the law.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the statute of limitations must be strictly interpreted to protect employers against “stale claims” and “tardy lawsuits.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Ms. Ledbetter’s pay fell behind that of men because of “a long series of decisions reflecting Goodyear’s pervasive discrimination against women managers in general and Ledbetter in particular.”
Justice Ginsburg invited Congress to correct the court’s “cramped interpretation” of the law.
That is exactly what Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats say they plan to do...
...In the last 19 months, federal judges have cited the Ledbetter decision in more than 300 cases involving not only Title VII, but also the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the Fair Housing Act; a law known as Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in schools and colleges; and even the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects prisoners’ rights.
Lower-court judges have been influenced by two particular aspects of the Ledbetter decision. The Supreme Court drew a sharp distinction between “discrete acts” of discrimination and the continuing effects of past violations. Employers, it said, do not necessarily violate the law when their recent actions have no discriminatory purpose, but perpetuate the adverse effects of pay decisions made in the past.
The Ledbetter precedent has stymied a wide range of civil rights plaintiffs.
...The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit extended this logic to a housing discrimination case in Idaho. The ruling significantly limits the ability of plaintiffs to enforce their rights under the Fair Housing Act.
The Idaho plaintiff, Noll Garcia, uses a wheelchair. He said his apartment violated federal standards because it was not readily accessible. Under the law, he had two years to challenge a “discriminatory housing practice” in court.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, writing for the majority, said this two-year period began when construction of the building was complete. Mr. Garcia lost out because he filed suit in 2003 — within two years of renting the apartment, but 10 years after it was built.
Three dissenting judges said the decision showed how “statutes of limitations have been twisted by courts to limit the scope and thrust of civil rights laws.”