[JURIST] The US Supreme Court and the constitution were the focus of discussion Friday afternoon at the Netroots Nation [advocacy group] progressives conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Blogger Christy Hardin Smith [FireDogLake archive] began the session by giving her opinion that the Supreme Court is something Americans
should pay more attention to, because those decisions affect all of our lives in ways that we might not appreciate until we get pulled into a court case.In discussing the Court's interpretation of statutory law, the four panelists and moderator made frequent reference to the Court's controversial 2007 ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. [JURIST report], which determined the statutory limitations period for pay discrimination lawsuits, meaning that Ledbetter was unable to recover from her employer. Hardin Smith said that Ledbetter had been "working while female" and Constitution Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) [official website] expressed frustration at the ruling, saying that the Court "went against the plain meaning of the text." Nadler co-sponsored the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 [S 181 materials; JURIST report], which effectively overturned the Court's ruling when US President Barack Obama [official website] signed it into law one week after taking office in January. Nadler stated that he intends to focus on "making a [legislative] record that protects decent legislation" from being misinterpreted.
The panelists spent a significant portion of the session discussing judge Sonia Sotomayor [White House profile], recently sworn in [JURIST report] as the 111th justice of the US Supreme Court. Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron [AFJ profile] speculated, "I think we will see from her what we saw from Thurgood Marshall...and the dialogue among the justices will change."
Moving to a broader exploration of the composition of the Court, Nadler expressed concerns that the Court in general is trending toward a return to the Lochner [SSRN article] era in its approach to employee rights and wages. Later, responding to a question about how the structure of the legal profession and its hiring practices may influence the Court, he noted,
The moment you hit the federal court, it's corporate law...You're not going to the federal bench if you weren't in a white shoe firm, and that's gotta be changed too. [sic]The conversation shifted to a discussion of this Court's emphasis on the original intent [WSJ report] of the Constitution's framers, leading Nadler to quip, "the framers probably had no original intent," and so would be of little help in interpreting "glittering phrases [such as] Due Process." Speaking on originalism, Aron took a different approach, stating,
Most of us recognize that the founders of that Constitution were a very small, select group of elite individuals...all of them white men, if I'm not mistaken.She added, "The debate between originalism and evolving notions of decency are certainly the underpinnings of how conservatives talk about [these issues]."
The panel discussion concluded with questions from the audience, with one attendee noting the importance of civics education in America. Constitutional Accountability Center Founder & President Doug Kendall [CAC profile] responded by returning to the theme of the framers, commenting,
How we teach the Reconstruction Amendments...the heart and soul of the progressive Constitution...the framers of those amendments should be on the levels of Hamilton and Madison.Nadler noted, "Obviously they should teach civics, but they should teach reality too...courts have played a major role in government...not just as umpires."