Here we go again. The balance of justice between businesses and citizens is being tested this week in the Supreme Court. If recent history is a guide, this may not end well.
The Roberts Court and its aggressive pro-corporate majority are taking up a case with significant implications for the degree to which ordinary Americans can have access to civil courts when they are in disputes with corporations. The case, Rent-a-Center v. Jackson, involves the growing trend of business contracts, including employment agreements, to require the parties to submit their disputes through arbitration, rather than through the courts. The specific issue at stake here involves what happens when one of the parties believes the arbitration agreement is "unconscionable." Does the arbitrator alone decide if the arbitration agreement is enforceable, or can the issue be brought to a court of law?
In this instance, Antonio Jackson filed suit claiming racial discrimination when he was fired by Rent-a-Center, West, and he argued the employment contract was "unconscionable" and therefore invalid. His employment contract, as is often the case now in contracts between corporations and consumers or employees, included an arbitration clause and Rent-a-Center insisted that only an arbitrator can decide the validity of Mr. Jackson's claim.
Rent-a-Center wants the courts to stay out of it; Antonio Jackson, who claims racial discrimination and retaliation, wants his day in court. This case obviously is important to Mr. Jackson, but it's also important to the rest of us, partly because it deals with the desire of corporations to insulate their behavior from judicial scrutiny, but also because it's one of a series of cases taken up by the Supreme Court that has significantly altered the relative power of business interests and ordinary people.
Alliance for Justice recently completed an analysis of the current Court, called "Unprecedented Injustice: The Political Agenda of the Roberts Court." A frighteningly clear pattern has emerged, revealing a Court that has repeatedly placed corporate interests first, and the rights of individuals second, and has often gone out of its way to do so. Precedents and long-held principles have been disregarded, frequently in 5-4 votes, revealing a drastic rightward, pro-corporate tilt. Our analysis shows that in the 2007-08 term alone, of the 30 major business-related decisions, 22 were decided in favor of large corporations.
Whether Rent-a-Center becomes another business victory remains to be seen. But there can be no question that the conservative movement is eager to send more cases like this to this Court (along with a host of social and policy issues) in an effort to undo generations of judicial precedent, established legislative policy, and social and economic progress.
The stakes are very high in the appointment of the new justice to replace Justice John Paul Stevens. No one knows that more than Antonio Jackson and other Americans who seek only a reasonable balance -- rooted firmly in law and constitutional principles -- between the powerful and the powerless. That's why it's so important for the next justice to be someone willing and able to persuasively articulate and unhesitatingly defend those principles. Whether the razor thin conservative majority can occasionally be broken is an open question, but given the record of this Court, who can doubt that a full-throated defense of core constitutional values is needed now, more than ever.
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