The conservative bloc of the Supreme Court finds itself under fire once again for a decision being criticized for handing too much authority to large corporations at the expense of average Americans.
The high court on Monday blocked a huge gender-discrimination lawsuit against retail titan Wal-Mart. Just last year, conservatives on the court found themselves criticized for their sweeping decision in Citizens United, which granted corporations wide new influence in U.S. elections.
Although the court was unanimous Monday in its decision the class-action suit against Wal-Mart couldn’t proceed as structured, justices split in a 5-4 ruling that found the women in the case hadn’t shown enough commonality in their complaints against the world’s largest employer. The case involved as many as 1.5 million female workers. The decision also could affect discrimination cases in the future, as well.
“The aspect of the Supreme Court’s decision today in Wal-Mart v. Dukes that involved a deep division is most troublesome, and undercuts the ability of this class of female employees to even get through the courthouse door to have their common issue considered,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “While the justices agreed on one issue about the availability of a particular remedy, they were divided on whether the employer’s treatment of its female employees was sufficiently similar for them to be considered a class. As a result, five justices have again decided to make it more difficult to hold corporations accountable under our historic civil rights laws.
“This is not an isolated case,” Leahy adds. “It is the latest in a series of cases the Judiciary Committee has considered over the last four years. Whether it is Lilly Ledbetter suing her employer for gender discrimination, or a group of consumers suing their phone company for deceptive practices, an activist majority of the Supreme Court is making it more and more difficult for Americans to have their day in court.”
Leahy was not alone in his criticism.
Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, calls the Wal-Mart ruling “a setback for the women of Wal-Mart and women workers everywhere.”
“By ignoring the clear common questions at stake in this case, the Court could insulate large corporations from complying with our laws and allow them to hide behind written policies of nondiscrimination, even when a company fosters a culture of bias and stereotypes,” Ness says in a statement. “As Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg said in her vigorous dissent on the issue of whether women workers at Wal-Mart had enough in common to proceed as a class: ‘Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware. The risk of discrimination is heightened when those managers are predominantly of one sex, and are steeped in a corporate culture that perpetuates gender stereotypes.’ We strongly agree.
“Particularly now, when families rely more than ever on women’s earnings, women need fair pay and fair opportunities for advancement,” Ness adds. “Today’s ruling sets a dangerous precedent that will make it easier for employers – especially large ones – to discriminate against their employees while, at the same time, making it harder for workers to come together to challenge it. This creation of a potential ‘large company’ exception to our civil rights laws is a perversion of justice.”
Leahy also calls the court’s Wal-Mart ruling a new twist on the adage “too big to fail” which was a watchword in the 2008 financial meltdown.
“Over the past two years, the American people have grown frustrated with the notion that some corporations are too big to fail. Today’s decision will undoubtedly make some wonder whether the Supreme Court has now decided that some corporations are too big to be held accountable,” the senator says. “Discrimination in the workplace continues, and we need to make sure that all Americans are treated fairly, especially in these challenging economic times.”
Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.