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Published: Tuesday, 6/3/2008

Taking the worker's side

JUST when the U.S. Supreme Court looked set to render another blow to American workers in the era of Chief Justice John Roberts, it issued two sensible and just opinions that allowed federal civil rights laws to retain their muscle.

Despite the different circumstances and applicable statutes (one case involved a federal employee, another a worker in the private sector), both cases turned on an essential point: Does an employee's discrimination claim against an employer cover retaliation for making a complaint, even if Congress never explicitly said so? Relying heavily on precedent, the court by comfortable majorities said it did.

In a case from Puerto Rico, the court sided with a 45-year-old U.S. Postal Service clerk, Myrna Gomez-Perez, who alleged that, after filing an age discrimination complaint, she was subjected to various forms of retaliation on the job. By a 6-3 majority, the justice reversed an appeals court decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.

In the other case, the issue was whether a civil rights law protecting an employee against racial discrimination extended to retaliation for complaining about the treatment of a fellow worker. By a 7-2 margin, the court upheld the judgment of an appeals court and found for Hedrick Humphries, a former assistant manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant who had been fired.

This was a welcome relief. With retaliation complaints rising dramatically in the nation, these cases had seemed to offer the court's conservative justices a new opportunity to cause some mischief.

Indeed, as the New York Times reported, the Supreme Court's decision last year to hear the appeal by Cracker Barrel's owners was a surprise because lower federal courts had not disputed the law. Given the court's leanings, it seemed a fair bet that the justices might follow their unfair and intellectually bankrupt ruling last year in the Lilly Ledbetter unequal pay case with more of the same cramped reasoning.

But this time the majority went into the thicket of the law and found a reason to do justice. For his part, Chief Justice Roberts was in the majority in the Cracker Barrel case but was among the dissenters in the Postal Service case. In both cases true to form, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas had their ideological blinders on and could not see their way to being reasonable.

But almost on the one-year anniversary of the outrageous Ledbetter case, here was the court presenting a fresh face (Justice Samuel Alito, author of the Ledbetter majority opinion, even wrote the opinion in the postal worker case.) For whatever reason, a new term has brought a new attitude on the court. Let's hope it lasts.



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