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Little-Known Convention Speaker Hints at Obama Court Priorities « The Washington Independent

While the Democratic convention has consisted mostly of a predictable lineup of party stalwarts, the presence of one little-known speaker may suggest far more about the intentions of Barack Obama than the big-name Democrats that took center stage.

That speaker was Lilly Ledbetter, a female supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Alabama who for decades was paid significantly less than her male counterparts. When she finally found out about it, she sued under the Equal Pay Act. A jury awarded her back-pay and compensatory and punitive damages

But the court of appeals reversed – and the Supreme Court upheld that reversal. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Alito, the latest Bush appointment, the Court ruled Ledbetter was not entitled to recover back pay for more than six months prior to the date she filed her claim – even though she’d only found out about the large pay disparity a few months before she sued. Obama has criticized the decision as unfair, and voted for a bill in Congress that would overturn it

John McCain, meanwhile, has said he agrees with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Ledbetter case – and even mocked a 14-year-old girl who asked him about it at a campaign event

Ledbetter v. Goodyear was just one of a slew of recent Supreme Court decisions that have favored big business over people harmed by corporate actions. Last year, for example, the court ruled that Medtronic, the company that made faulty heart defibrillators, was not liable for the damages because the FDA had approved the valve; whether the company had provided correct information to the FDA was irrelevant. More recently, the court drastically reduced the punitive damages awarded to Alaskans harmed by the 11-million-gallon ExxonValdez oil spill in 1989, imposing an arbitrary damages limit that never existed in the law. No matter that Exxon had knowingly allowed an alcoholic boat captain to drive the boat that crashed into a reef in Prince William Sound.

That the Democratic party chose Lilly Ledbetter to speak at the Convention suggests that a President Obama would try to halt the growing tendency of the federal courts to shut out ordinary people challenging powerful business interests.

“Sen. Obama been very aggressive about raising that case as an issue that illustrates why it’s important for him to be elected,” says Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. The next president is expected to have the chance to choose between one and three new Supreme Court justices, and many more judges for the lower federal courts

Not that Obama has been anti-business in any sense – as demonstrated by the fact that he’s the top pick of many CEOs on Wall Street and their lawyers. But it does suggest that he’s aware that the Supreme Court has shifted dramatically to the right in recent years, in particular by favoring big business over consumers and employees, something Jeffrey Rosen described in the NY Times Magazine last March.

As Judith Schaeffer, Legal Director of People for the American Way put it: “Bush-appointed judges have a tendency to use all kinds of procedural maneuvers to keep people not from winning, but from not being even able to present their case to the factfinder.

That Lilly Ledbetter got an opportunity to present her case at the Democratic convention this week suggests that a President Obama would use his judicial appointment powers to try to pry the courthouse doors back open.

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