Civil Rights

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January 30, 2008 Editorial Restoring Civil Rights

In recent decades, and to much public acclaim, Congress passed a series of landmark laws designed to ensure equal rights for all Americans. Lately, and without much notice, the Supreme Court has been gutting them.

Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, has introduced a pair of bills designed to undo the damage done by the court’s badly reasoned decisions. Congress should pass both without delay.

One of the most troubling rulings was in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant who was paid less than her male colleagues after she was given smaller raises over several years. The court’s conservative majority ruled that Ms. Ledbetter had not met the 180-day deadline to file her complaint. It insisted that the 180 days ran from the day the company had made the original decision to give her a smaller raise than the men.

The ruling made no sense, since Ms. Ledbetter was being discriminated against when she made her complaint. As a practical matter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a strongly worded dissent, it would have been exceptionally difficult for Ms. Ledbetter to complain when she was first given a lower raise than the male supervisors because Goodyear, like many employers, kept salaries and raises confidential.

The Fair Pay Restoration Act, one of Senator Kennedy’s bills, would undo the injustice of the Ledbetter decision by establishing that the 180-day deadline runs from when a worker receives the unequal pay, not when the employer decided to discriminate. It would make clear that each discriminatory paycheck restarts the clock.

Mr. Kennedy’s other bill, the Civil Rights Act of 2008, would reverse more bad decisions. One of these is a 2001 ruling that says that people who are discriminated against in programs using federal funds can sue only for intentional discrimination, not for actions that have a discriminatory effect. This decision dramatically scaled back protections against discrimination of all kinds.

The civil rights bill would also strengthen age discrimination laws, which the court has repeatedly and shamefully weakened. It would make clear that, contrary to the court’s recent interpretation, federal law barring age discrimination requires the same standard of proof as cases of race, gender and other forms of discrimination. Another provision of the bill would give students in schools that receive federal funds greater protection against harassment.

In the House of Representatives, John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, has introduced a companion bill to the Senate civil rights bill. The House has already passed its own version of the fair pay law.

Conservatives like to say that the court’s conservative justices believe in applying the law, not making it. But in recent years, the court’s majority has been reading federal anti-discrimination laws far more narrowly than Congress intended — not applying the law, but unmaking it.