Pundits and politicians who oppose the President this year like to mock President Obama’s record. In fact, common wisdom has it that Republicans wanted the Presidential election to be a referendum on President Obama rather than a choice between him and his Republican opponent. Putting aside some of the intentional misrepresentation of that record, what can we say about what the President has been doing? It would be worthwhile to discuss the things President Obama has done, in a series of articles leading up to the election.
Let’s start at the beginning. The very first bill that President Obama signed into law, on January 29, 2009, was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The bill was named after a woman who retired from Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1998, who then sued her former employer for having paid her less, throughout her career, than her male counterparts. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations had expired on her claim; according to what was then the current law, a claimant had to allege discrimination within 180 days of its occurrence. Ms. Ledbetter had been hired many years previously, and the discrimination had been ongoing for many bad years — since 1979 — without legal action.
Somehow, that made it okay. The Supreme Court said so.
The case as brought to the Supreme Court didn’t deal with constitutional issues, but with the interpretation of federal law. Ledbetter alleged that her situation was one in which “disparate pay is received during the statutory limitations period, but is the result of intentionally discriminatory pay decisions that occurred outside the limitations period.” The majority decision said Ledbetter “could have, and should have, sued” at the time the initial discriminatory pay decisions were made.
The problem with this is that most employers discourage employees from discussing their pay with other employees. In fact, many employers — Goodyear included — will actually fire employees who discuss their pay with other employees. It is therefore extremely difficult for an employee to discover (let alone prove) that he or she has been the victim of pay discrimination. In this case, it would have been impossible for Ledbetter to uncover the sexual discrimination in Goodyear’s pay scales without losing her job, until after she no longer held her job.
Ms. Ledbetter filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The original case was decided in her favor, but Goodyear appealed. The Eleventh Circuit Court reversed that ruling, and Ms. Ledbetter brought the case to the Supreme Court. She lost.
The decision by the court seemed to make a mockery of these civil rights laws, by admitting they have no teeth if the corporation which violates them can effectively hide the violation for a length of time beyond a 180-day statute of limitations. The idea behind a statute of limitations is that after a certain length of time (which varies by the crime), a violation of the law is either very hard to prove, or is no longer relevant, or was something (as in cases like this) where the aggrieved party had been consenting to the arrangement and perhaps brought suit for reasons unrelated to the unfairness that the law was intended to prevent.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a scathing dissent to the majority opinion, in which she was joined by Justices John Stevens, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer. She argued that pay discrimination often occurs in small increments over long stretches of time, and is not obvious until long after the statute of limitations has expired. Further, she noted (as I did above) that corporations make it very difficult for pay discrimination to be discovered, by exacting penalties when employees discuss or reveal their pay.
The majority opinion, denying any relief for Ledbetter, was written by Justice Samuel Alito. He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts. The decision did not prevent suits under other laws, like the Equal Pay Act, which has a three-year deadline for most sex discrimination claims, or 42 U.S.C. 1981 (“Equal Rights Under the Law”), which has a four-year deadline for suing over race discrimination.
In 2007, the House of Representatives passed a bill to correct this problem. The proposed law would count each paycheck as a new instance of discrimination, and would reset the clock for the 180-day statute of limitations each time an employee is payed. Thus, a claimant would only have to file a lawsuit within 180 days of the last paycheck. The bill died in the Senate, because it failed to pass a cloture vote forced by Senate Republicans. During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain publicly opposed the bill, and Barack Obama publicly supported it. This was one of the many issues discussed during the campaign, and it was brought up during the presidential debates.
A new version of the bill was proposed in the 111th Congress. It passed the Senate’s cloture motion. It was signed by President Obama nine days after his inauguration.
This step to combat gender discrimination in the workplace may not win President Obama many votes in his 2012 reëlection campaign, mostly because a) it was signed almost four years ago (American voters have short memories), and b) it is a relatively obscure bit of civil rights law. It is, however, an indication of where the heart of this President lies — and where the intent of the Republican Party rests in their opposition to it. (See: war on women.)
Any list of the accomplishments of President Obama must include mention of his support for, and signing of, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. It is now legal to bring suit for pay discrimination within 180 days of any discriminatory paycheck — not just the first such paycheck — because of President Obama. It is one way he has led better, and but one example of why he deserves to have a good year.
- Fair pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter still has plenty to fight for (kansascity.com)
- John Foster Way: Unfair pay violates women’s civil rights (norwichbulletin.com)
- Ledbetter: A lot of work to be done for pay equality (wvgazette.com)
- Lilly Ledbetter to headline Economic Summit for Women (bizjournals.com)
- Lilly Ledbetter: Paul Ryan scares me to death (rawstory.com)
- Ok, swing voters, here are your porn star endorsements for November’s presidential race [Interesting] (fark.com)
- Woman’s Right To Vote (propresobama.org)