Supreme Court: Landmark Decision Highlights Equal Pay for Equal Work

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lone woman on the Supreme Court, no longer needs her “I’m Ruth, Not Sandra" T-shirt. But she does need her vote and so do all women. Imagine stepping into a time machine, circa 1950 — a time where women were not guaranteed equal pay and women were not on the Supreme Court. That seems so long ago right? Well, not exactly. Let me explain.

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman elected to sit on our High Court retired last year and was swiftly replaced by a man — Justice Alito — leaving Justice Ginsburg as the only woman on our highest court. O’Connor’s departure served as a beacon of light for some people who’d been anxiously awaiting an opportunity to reverse decades of “progressive rulings on key social issues.” Translation: an opportunity to potentially eradicate critical equal protections for which we’ve fought so hard.

Listen up ladies, if you’ve been working a while, and had a sense that there may be some pay disparity, don't give the blokes the benefit of the doubt. You have to trot down and file a discrimination claim — NOW! That’s what a recent Supreme Court decision seems to indicate. This landmark decision highlighted what seems to indicate that a Court once standing for the disadvantaged now stands for protecting the powerful. Split by the thinnest margin, the Supreme Court dismissed a discrimination suit by Lily Ledbetter, a longtime Goodyear supervisor who was paid thousands of dollars a year less than her male counterparts. If it sounds to you like the Court just struck a blow for discrimination by stripping a key civil rights law of much of its strength, you’re right. The majority by Justice Alito, forced (in my opinion) an unreasonable reading of the law and shunted aside precedent to rule against Ledbetter. The Court’s majority held that too much time had elapsed as Ledbetter’s claim was not within the 180 days statute of limitations.

In other words, the majority of these good ol’ boys of our Supreme Court who heard this Civil Rights Act case flexed their muscles and failed to support equal pay for equal work contributions. The Court held that Ledbetter would’ve had to complain of the illegal pay differential years before she actually found out about it. Let me ask you a question — does that seem reasonable to mandate filing suit within 180 days or risk losing the claim? I didn’t think so. It took Ms. Ledbetter almost 20 years to realize she earned $6,000 less a year than her male colleagues. Unlike Supreme Court’s salaries, most of our salaries aren’t public knowledge — so how can we be expected to compare pay? Does this mean that we should automatically assume pay discrepancies and just file a claim regardless of proof? That’s what this ruling seems to suggest.

Outraged over the Goodyear decision, Justice Ginsburg read her vigorous dissent from the bench, a symbolic and dramatic gesture. Richard Lazarus, co-director of Georgetown University’s Law Center’s Supreme Court Institute noted that a reading from the bench signifies “a different order of magnitude of dissent.” The majority in Goodyear blinded itself to the realities of the workplace. “In our view, the Court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination ... Title VII was meant to govern real world employment practices and that world is what the Court ignores today." Ginsburg called for Congress to correct the Court’s mistake. Within hours, Senator Clinton stepped up to the plate and announced her intention to submit such a bill.

The Goodyear decision shows the profound impact of Justice Alito’s presence on the Court. This could, in fact, herald a bad year for women. Justice O’Connor would almost certainly have voted with Ginsburg, forcing the opposite result.

Most recently, the Supreme Court cut back on the free speech rights of public school students (I’m sure by now most of us have heard about the “Bong Hits for Jesus Case”) strictly enforced procedural rights for bringing and appealing cases, and decided to limit school districts’ ability to use race conscious measures to achieve or preserve integration (goodbye affirmative action).
To break it down, one third of the Court’s decisions (more than any other recent terms) were decided on a 5-4 margin. Analysts believe Justice O’Connor would almost certainly have voted with Justice Ginsburg, forcing many of the opposite results.

Bottom Line: this Titanic battle over the composition and direction of the Supreme Court seems to be escalating toward reversing decades of “progressive rulings.” After decades of eliminating antiquated laws and fighting for our rights, let’s make sure we’re not thrust back to a time where we’re supposed to stay home and cook — or worse, if we’re out making a living for our family, we’re not getting paid equally. Maybe a “woman’s touch” on the Supreme Court would help …

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (Watch the Video) To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.