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“Obama’s Executive Order Rights A Wrong”: One Of The Most Important Positive Steps For Civil Rights In Last 20 Years

Little noticed in coverage of President Barack Obama’s signing of the Fair Play and Safe Workplaces executive order July 31 was a provision that has been called “one of the most important positive steps for civil rights in the last 20 years.”

The statement comes from Paul Bland of the public interest group Public Justice, quoted by Emily Bazelon of Slate. He’s right; what he’s referring to is a provision of the order that bars employers from forcing workers to bring workplace discrimination, sexual assault or sexual harassment cases only through arbitration. As Bazelon reports, the order applies to firms with federal contracts valued at more than $1 million. But that’s plenty.

The arbitration provision got little public attention after the signing, in part because business lobbyists were so busy carrying on about other aspects of the executive order.

As my colleague Christi Parsons reported, businesses are exercised about a rule requiring prospective federal contractors to disclose labor law violations dating back three years and government agencies to take those violations into account when handing out federal contracts. The idea is to goad employers into settling the violations before they apply for contracts.

Business mouthpieces complain that the provision will create a “blacklist” barring companies with even minor violations from hopping on the government gravy train. Repeat after me: “Tough.”

The arbitration provision, however, addresses what may be an even more important abuse. As a private venue for dispute resolution, arbitration may be an effective way to keep commercial disagreement from clogging court dockets. That’s true chiefly when all the parties come to arbitration with roughly equivalent resources.

When it’s used by employers against employees, or by corporations against aggrieved customers, and when it’s forced down complainants’ throats against their wishes, however, it’s a scourge.

Arbitration provisions have proliferated everywhere, and it’s a safe bet that many, if not most, people forced into arbitration didn’t even know they were subject to the requirement until after their dispute arose – arbitration clauses are buried in the boilerplate you sign when you enroll with a cable company, go to a doctor or hospital, or take a new job. Arbitration typically favors the bigger party — they know their way around the process better, and they can take better advantage of what are often very loose standards of evidence and testimony in arbitration.

The Obama order strikes at the heart of this injustice by allowing complaints about workplace discrimination or abuse to be arbitrated only with the consent of the parties after the disputes arise. Surprise arbitration clauses, in other words, are out.

It’s hard not to see the order as a reproach to the Supreme Court and other courts. Judges are big fans of arbitration, in part because it keeps tedious commercial disputes out of their hair. The key case upholding arbitration clauses involved AT&T and a customer dispute over the real cost of “free” cellphones sold by the mobile carrier.

A California federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected AT&T’s demand to compel arbitration. But the Supreme Court sided with the company in a 5-4 ruling (naturally).

This was a reflection of what legal scholar David Cole recently called the court’s “unremittingly conservative” narrowing of access to the judiciary to remedy legal wrongs. The Earl Warren Court, he observed in the New York Review of Books, “viewed the courts’ highest calling in a constitutional democracy as safeguarding those who cannot protect themselves through the political process.”

The Roberts Court has put its thumb on the other side of the scale.

The Obama order shifts the balance just a little bit back the other way.

 

By: Michael Hiltzik, Columnist for The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, August 14, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 20, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Executive Orders | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“I Want My Binky”: Justice Samuel Alito’s Middle-School Antics

The most remarkable thing about the Supreme Court’s opinions announced Monday was not what the justices wrote or said. It was what Samuel Alito did.

The associate justice, a George W. Bush appointee, read two opinions, both 5-4 decisions that split the court along its usual right-left divide. But Alito didn’t stop there. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, Alito visibly mocked his colleague.

Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the high court, was making her argument about how the majority opinion made it easier for sexual harassment to occur in the workplace when Alito, seated immediately to Ginsburg’s left, shook his head from side to side in disagreement, rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling.

His treatment of the 80-year-old Ginsburg, 17 years his elder and with 13 years more seniority, was a curious display of judicial temperament or, more accurately, judicial intemperance. Typically, justices state their differences in words — and Alito, as it happens, had just spoken several hundred of his own from the bench. But he frequently supplements words with middle-school gestures.

Days earlier, I watched as he demonstrated his disdain for Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the two other women on the court. Kagan, the newest justice, prefaced her reading of an opinion in a low-profile case by joking that it was “possibly not” the case the audience had come to hear. The audience responded with laughter, a few justices smiled — and Alito, seated at Kagan’s right elbow, glowered.

Another time, Sotomayor, reading a little-watched case about water rights, joked that “every student in the audience is going to look up the word ‘preemption’ today.” Alito rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Alito is best known for his antics at the 2010 State of the Union address, when President Obama criticized the Citizens United decision. While other justices remained expressionless, Alito adopted a sour look, shook his head “no” and appeared to mouth the words “not true.” At the various oral arguments I’ve watched over the past few years, Alito’s eye-rolling, head-shaking and other expressions of exasperation are a fairly common occurrence, most often when Sotomayor has the floor.

Alito’s latest irritability came, ironically, on a day when the main headline about the court was comity: Justice Anthony Kennedy read an unexpectedly modest decision on affirmative action that left some racial preferences intact and commanded a 7-1 majority. Many in the audience expected bigger decisions, on same-sex marriage and voting rights (former justices John Paul Stevens and Alito’s predecessor, Sandra Day O’Connor, were both in the house), but those contentious issues were held for another day.

Beyond the broad agreement on affirmative action, though, were three 5-4 decisions Monday, two read by Alito with a dry and clinical delivery. In the first, he announced that the court was rejecting a jury award for a woman who was disfigured and disabled by a drug that didn’t come with adequate warnings. Despite the “dreadful injuries,” Alito argued, siding with the drugmaker and throwing out an appellate-court ruling, “sympathy for respondent does not relieve us of the responsibility of following the law.”

The second case Alito read, one of two cases Monday limiting claims of workplace discrimination, rejected an African American woman’s complaints of a racially hostile work environment. Alito argued that the employer was not liable because, under Alito’s narrowed definition, the person doing the harassing did not qualify as the employee’s supervisor.

Other conservative justices share Alito’s views but aren’t quite so dour in expression. Antonin Scalia is caustic and even incendiary, but often funny. Chief Justice John Roberts can be droll. On the other side, Kagan has tried to make the court more accessible to a lay audience by giving chatty lectures from the bench rather than reading from her written opinions, which also have been playful. In an opinion she wrote this month on a transportation case, she made reference to the 1980s song “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone.

Even Ginsburg, no comedienne, can be colloquial and accessible. In her dissents Monday, she noted that an employee can avoid a harassing co-worker by telling him to “buzz off.” She also invoked the self-deprecating quotation defining a legal mind as one that “can think about a thing inextricably attached to something else without thinking about the thing which it is attached to.”

Ginsburg was tart, even acidic — but she confined her objections to words. That kind of judicial restraint would benefit her junior colleague.

 

By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 24, 2013

June 25, 2013 Posted by | Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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