The rights of working families across America hang in the balance this Election Day. The future of laws protecting working people — our right to safe working conditions, to organize, and to sue employers who have discriminated against us — will depend on who we elect.
But when it comes to workers’ rights, some of the most influential government officials we’ll be voting for are ones whose names don’t actually appear on the ballot. Either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will nominate Supreme Court justices — as many as three — over the next four years.
Those men and women, serving lifetime appointments, have a profound impact on our nation’s laws for a generation. Ronald Reagan’s administration ended a quarter century ago, but two of the Supreme Court justices he nominated, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, continue to form the core of a 5-4 majority that consistently twists the law to favor big corporations over the rights of individuals.
That 5-4 majority could be reversed if Obama has a chance to name our next Supreme Court justices. He’s already put Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan on the Court, and they are exactly the kind of judges we need on the nation’s highest court. Both of them have a clear commitment to our rights under the Constitution and a deep understanding of the impact of the law on the daily lives of Americans.
In contrast, Mitt Romney has said he would nominate justices like Scalia and his fellow pro-corporate justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and John Roberts. In case after case, they have confounded logic, ignored or overruled precedent, and ignored the plain meaning of laws in order to rule in favor of the powerful and against ordinary Americans, especially workers.
It was Romney’s model justices who notoriously told Lilly Ledbetter — and every other woman who discovered her employer had for years been illegally paying her less than her male counterparts — that they couldn’t sue for compensation for all those years of discrimination. These are the same justices who tossed out a nationwide class-action discrimination lawsuit on behalf of 1.5 million women employees of Walmart who had shown they were victims of systemic illegal discrimination.
They misinterpreted language in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to make it harder for victims of discrimination to win in court, giving it a different meaning from identical language in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But perhaps the most astonishing of their 5-4 rulings against working people came earlier this year, in a case called Knox v. SEIU. Romney’s model justices made up a rule that makes it much harder for public sector unions to raise the dues they need to effectively advocate on behalf of workers — and they did so even though neither party in the case even asked them to consider the issue.
Every American deserves their day in court. That is part of the American ideal of justice, and it is embedded in our Constitution. But that “day in court” becomes nothing more than a charade if the judge rules against you on the basis of something you never even had a chance to argue.
Over the next 20-30 years, the Supreme Court will decide numerous cases involving the rights of workers. These cases will affect working Americans all over the country. If Mitt Romney has a chance to put his stamp on the Court, it will be bad news for working people long after he leaves office.
Marge Baker is the executive vice president of People For the American Way.