Editor’s Note: Lilly Ledbetter was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and her name is attached to the Fair Pay Act of 2009. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s easy to think that the Supreme Court only matters to attorneys. But if I have learned anything in my life, it is this: Supreme Court decisions have a huge impact on ordinary people and the justices who sit on the Supreme Court make a big difference.
In fact, justice served or justice denied often comes down to a single vote on the Supreme Court.
I know because I was denied justice in my pay discrimination case because of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2007.
All I wanted was to work hard at a good job with a fair shot at taking care of myself and my family. After doing so for 20 years as a supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Gadsden, Alabama, someone left an anonymous note in my mailbox that told me what the men I was working with were earning. I’ll never forget the pit in my stomach when I learned I had been earning 25 to 40% less than them despite doing the same job.
I thought about my family struggling to pay for our kids’ college education, our mortgage, medical bills.
Doing nothing was not an option. I filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then I took Goodyear to court. The jury recognized that what happened to me wasn’t right, held that the company had paid me less just because I was a woman, and initially awarded me around $3.5 million to make up for all the years of being shortchanged.
But the Supreme Court took it all away by one vote. Five Justices said I should have complained sooner, within 180 days after I received my first paycheck – even though at the time I wasn’t aware that I was being shortchanged. They said that because I didn’t complain then, I had missed my chance, and it didn’t matter that Goodyear had discriminated against me for 20 years. I lost.
Now, decades later, I have less to live on in retirement than I would have if I had been fairly compensated.
To this day, I believe that, had Justice Sandra Day O’Connor remained on the Court in place of Justice Samuel Alito, my case would have gone the other way.
We all deserve the opportunity to take a close and careful look at any nominee for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court; the stakes are incredibly high and the impact is felt by everyday people. But the decision rests with the Senate, and Senate Republicans seem bound and determined to rush through the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who could sit on the Court until my grandchildren have grandchildren of their own.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, on behalf of the Senate Judiciary Committee, even failed to request documents relating to Kavanaugh’s time as a staff secretary for the Bush administration, implying that many details of his career are not important to examine. Given what we do know, however, I have deep concerns. Judge Kavanaugh has a history of ruling in favor of employers at the expense of employees – undercutting their basic rights and even their safety.
In one case, Kavanaugh wrote a dissent that would have blown a gaping hole in the federal law protecting workers against age discrimination. In another, he sided with an employer that had allegedly discriminated against and terminated an employee based on race.
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Kavanaugh’s vision of the workplace – where workers are not able to challenge discrimination and where laws that protect them against harassment and other forms of discrimination are viewed as burdens to employers – would spell disaster for women and for all others who could face workplace discrimination.
We cannot let Brett Kavanaugh have the final word on our rights.