Weekend Watchdog Wrap-Up

Bill Scher

The Sunday shows go 1-for-3 for the Watchdog, as the addition of Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) to the presidential race, and the race for the women’s vote, appears to have indirectly prompted discussion of a bona fide women’s issue: equal pay.

On Face The Nation (PDF file), which featured four female elected officials, host Bob Schieffer asked former Mass. Gov. Jane Swift (R) about a new Obama-Biden ad which criticizes Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for opposing the Fair Pay Act.

And, after Swift gave a long-winded evasive answer, Schieffer even asked a follow-up.

SCHIEFFER: Tough words, Governor Swift. What’s your response to that?

SWIFT: Well, first of all, I’ll say that I think what they’re referring to is a very narrow decision in the Supreme Court that had more to do with enriching trial lawyers and giving them more of an opportunity to sue with an endless time frame than about whether or not John McCain has stood up for women. John McCain supported the Family Medical Leave Act early on in his career. He actually sponsored the Glass Ceiling Commission. He has done a number of things, including always putting women in positions of leadership within his office. I actually just joined with some folks in honoring members of Congress this week. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to give credit, was one of those women. And one of the things that we measured in our Best of Congress is do you put women in positions of leadership? And certainly, John McCain passes–has in his Senate career and does now–passes that test with flying colors.

SCHIEFFER: Well, that–all right. But do you believe that he supports equal pay for women?

Gov. SWIFT: I think that he does not believe that that is something that should be determined by endless lawsuits.

That of course, is where the rubber hits the road. If you can’t go to court to get the law enforced, what good is the law?

Anyone can say they support equality. The question is: what are you going to do about it?

(And yes, going to court would involve hiring a lawyer. And your point is…?)

As you probably suspect, the bill in question would not spark “endless” lawsuits. Nor would it take away, as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison later said on Face The Nation, a “reasonable statute of limitations.”

The whole point is that a ridiculous conservative activist Supreme Court opinion interpreted the current discrimination law to give an unreasonable statute of limitations — where the statute can run out before you are even aware you’re being discriminated against.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins explains:

Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., for almost 20 years — the only woman who ever managed to stick it out in what was not exactly a female-friendly environment. When she was near retirement, she got an anonymous letter listing the salaries of the men who held the same job. While she was making $3,727 a month, the lowest paid man, with far less seniority, was getting $4,286.

“I was just emotionally let down when I saw the difference,” she said on Friday.

The company declined Ledbetter’s offer to settle for the difference between her earnings and that lowest-paid man’s — about $60,000. A jury awarded her $223,776 in back pay and more than $3 million in punitive damages.

Goodyear appealed, and the case arrived at the Supreme Court just as President Bush’s new appointees were settling in. The court ruled 5-to-4 against Ledbetter, saying that she should have filed her suit within 180 days of receiving her first paycheck in which Goodyear discriminated against her.

The fact that workers generally have no idea what other people are making when they start a job did not concern the court nearly as much as what Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, called “the burden of defending claims arising from employment decisions that are long past.” In other words, pay discrimination is illegal unless it goes on for more than six months.

Ledbetter did not even get her back pay. And Goodyear billed her $3,165 for court-related costs.

The bill being voted on this week would have made it clear that every time a woman like Ledbetter got a check that was lower than those of the men doing the same job, it triggered a new 180-day deadline. That was the status quo before Alito and John Roberts arrived on the scene. But the sponsors needed 60 votes, and they only got 56. “I would never have believed this in the United States of America,” said Ledbetter, 70, who watched from the Senate gallery.

McCain opposed that law, claiming that what women need is “education and training.”

But education and training wasn’t what Ledbetter lacked. It was access to the courts. access to justice.

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