President Barack Obama recently signed the the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, reversing an absurd and disastrous Supreme Court decision that allowed companies to discriminate against workers based on their gender. The Act's namesake, 70-year-old Lilly Ledbetter, discovered shortly before retiring that her employer, Goodyear, had for decades systemically paid her less than her male colleagues. The Supreme Court ruled that because Lilly hadn't immediately discovered the pay discrepancy, she had no right to challenge the discrimination. With the new law, Congress stood up and clearly explained to the Court that each discriminatory paycheck is a violation of the law, regardless of when the discrimination began.
Though the Act is undeniably a tremendous victory for women and workers, it's far too soon to rejoice.
The Supreme Court is still firmly grounded in a right-wing ideology that doesn't want people defending their rights in court. This isn't the first time Congress has had to tell the Court to stop harming Americans. Back in September, Congress passed legislation to repudiate a series of Court rulings that changed the definition of a disability. The Court essentially declared, among other things, that people taking medication weren't sick enough to be declared disabled and employers were free to discriminate against them.
Clearly, Lilly Ledbetter's case resonated broadly with so many Americans because it was blatantly unfair. Most Supreme Court rulings - damaging and beneficial alike - deal with abstract legal concepts whose impact can be murky. Here, the Court's response to Lilly Ledbetter was so clearly wrong and patently offensive that it became part of the Presidential election. Though we now have a new President and new Congress, the courts are insulated from elections and still aren't empathetic to the needs of ordinary Americans.
But can't Congress just override the Court next time they get it wrong? Not quite. Here, the Court was inferring Congress' intent. In this case, Congress could stand up and say 'Wait a minute, you got it wrong!' In most cases though, the Court is interpreting the Constitution itself. Take the case of Patricia Garrett, a state employee who, like Lilly Ledbetter, was paid less because of discrimination. The Supreme Court told her she couldn't defend herself in court because the rights she was asserting, granted by Congress, violated the Constitution. There's no easy fix for those cases, which cause damage that only the Supreme Court can correct.
The President and Congress should be commended for standing up for workers and women, but the Lilly Ledbetter Act should serve as a stark reminder that at least for the moment, change hasn't come to the Supreme Court.