Thursday, January 29, 2009

Congressional Override of US Supreme Court Decision

Today, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-2) the first major piece of legislation enacted into law in the new Congress. In his remarks at the signing ceremony, the President said: “It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign - the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act - we are upholding one of this nation's first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness. . . But equal pay is by no means just a women's issue - it's a family issue.”

The bill signing comes after lengthy litigation that resulted in the 2007 US Supreme Court 5-4 ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), that reversed a $3 million jury award that found that Goodyear discriminated against her in pay, giving her smaller raises than the male managers. The basis of the Supreme Court ruling was the narrow issue of limitation of actions and that Ledbetter’s claims had to be filed within 180 days of the first time Goodyear paid her less than her peers. The decision became a major issue during the presidential campaign dividing the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democrats viewed the case as an ideologically driven decision — one that tossed aside precedent and logic — and campaigned in Congress to override the decision by enacting corrective legislation. The Republicans (almost united in their opposition to eliminating any time requirement for filing a claim involving pay discrimination and extending an expanded statute of limitations) led a successful filibuster against the bill in 2008 and this year unsuccessfully proposed eight amendments to weaken the legislation.

The passage of the new legislation raises broader questions about congressional overrides of US Supreme Court decisions in general. We generally assume that the courts – and especially the Supreme Court – have the “last word” on the meaning of Congressional statutes. But today’s bill signing makes clear that Congress can act to change or to clarify the legal framework in response to judicial decisions when those decisions have produced outcomes that are not favored by a congressional majority. The BLS library has in its collection a number of items that address the issue of congressional overrides of court cases including these two volumes:


Making Policy, Making Law: an Interbranch Perspective edited by Mark C. Miller and Jeb Barnes (JK305 .M35 2004)

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