The first bill signed into law by President Obama, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, righted a serious wrong. And Maine’s two senators helped make it happen.
The 70-year-old widow stood smiling happily behind the president in a group that included Maine’s moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. She was vindicated after losing a long legal struggle over wage discrimination.
She had worked 19 years as a plant supervisor at a tire factory in Alabama and finally learned that her male colleagues were being paid far more than she was. She filed suit against Goodyear Tire & Rubber in 2003 and won a $360,000 judgment, but a U.S. appeals court overturned it, saying she filed too late. The law says a complaint must be filed within six months of the claimed discrimination. She contended that each paycheck was discriminatory. She didn’t know until she neared retirement that she was being paid less than 16 men at the same management level. Someone had slipped her a pay schedule.
The Supreme Court in 2007 upheld the appeals court by a 5-4 vote in a decision written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.
Overriding the high court’s decision was not easy, even though it had disregarded its own precedent in a similar case that held each discriminatory paycheck to be unlawful. Nine U.S. courts of appeals, as well as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had agreed.
Last year, the House passed a bill to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision, but Senate Republicans blocked the legislation on a close procedural vote, and President Bush had threatened to veto it. Maine’s Sens. Collins and Snowe and four other Republicans joined the Democrats, but the vote fell four short of the 60 needed for consideration of the bill.
It took a new president, stronger Democratic control of the Senate, and the support of five Republicans including Sens. Collins and Snowe to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision. The vote 61-36 vote was a narrow fillibusterproof victory.
Most Republicans remained opposed to the Lilly Ledbetter bill. The House vote was 250-177, with only three Republicans joining in passing it. Bipartisanship was little present in either house.
Still, Maine can take comfort in the fact that both its senators were willing to break ranks again and join with the Democrats to correct what was clearly a miscarriage of justice. With their characteristic independence, they may lead the way toward true bipartisanship on selected issues and help keep their party from lapsing into chronic obstructionism.
As for Ms. Ledbetter, she has no chance of getting her lost wages from Goodyear, but she has the satisfaction of knowing that she has made it easier for working women to fight back against discrimination. And she got to dance with the president at an inauguration ball.