The Notorious RBG’s Turf War with Congress

Reexamining Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Ledbetter makes the deep flaws in her approach to the law clear.

The late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg firmly believed that the Constitution is an evolving document that should change to meet the times. Ginsburg’s famous dissent in the 2007 case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber is a good example of her approach to the law — and of why it is flawed. Ideally, the court’s role within our system of government is to determine whether laws are constitutional, not to correct or overwrite them. Ginsburg thought otherwise and said so in her dissent.

The twist in the story is that Congress subsequently changed the law to address the general point raised in the lawsuit. Legislators fulfilled their role, just as the Court had fulfilled its. This is how the system is meant to work. Ginsburg’s fans, such as the makers of the biopic RBG, argued that it was her fiery dissent that prodded Congress to action. That’s an exaggeration. It was the facts of Lilly Ledbetter’s case that made it a cause célèbre among labor unions and civil-rights activists: She lost her equal-pay suit because she missed an arbitrary 180-day deadline. The ads and op-eds wrote themselves.

Ledbetter discovered in 1997 that she was the victim of pay discrimination at the hands of her employer, Goodyear, for whom she had worked for 20 years. She filed a sex-discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Her case was thrown out on appeal because she’d filed it more than 180 days after the last alleged violation, the deadline set in the law. Ledbetter conceded in a deposition that she was aware of the pay disparity as early as 1992 but did not pursue a case until later. She contended that the deadline was unfair even so.

She appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, but lost in a 5–4 decision. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, argued that the case was cut-and-dry: Ledbetter had missed the filing deadline. Was the deadline unfair? Maybe so, but it was deliberately put into the law by legislators. “The short EEOC filing deadline reflects Congress’ strong preference for the prompt resolution of employment discrimination allegations through voluntary conciliation and cooperation,” Alito wrote.

Reading her dissent from the bench — a rare practice for her — Ginsburg decried the majority’s “cramped” interpretation of Title VII, calling it, “incompatible with the statute’s broad remedial purpose.” She conceded that the 180-day limit was in the law but argued that it was “not meant to serve as a specific limitation.”

Read the full article at National Review.