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In the last half-century, we've taken huge steps to ensure that all Americans get treated equally in the workplace. From the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s and onwards, fair hiring and pay regulations have allowed women and minorities to stand up for themselves and demand the equal treatment they deserve on the job.
The impact of that progress has been tremendous. An entire generation of Americans understands that they have a right to fair and honest treatment on the job - a far cry from the days when women could be openly denied "men's jobs."
To millions of people, the right to fair treatment (and the right to sue when treatment isn't fair) is taken almost for granted.
But that right is in danger.
Thanks to two new Supreme Court Justices nominated by George W. Bush, it's lately gotten much harder for people who are discriminated against to get justice.
The trouble started when a woman named Lilly Ledbetter wasn't getting paid what she deserved. Ledbetter worked at a Goodyear factory in Alabama for almost 20 years. She worked hard and even won the factory's Top Performer award in 1996. But, unknown to her, Goodyear paid her significantly less than her male colleagues for doing the same work. Year after year, the male employees got raises when Ledbetter didn't, and when she did get a raise, the men got bigger ones. When she finally discovered the pay disparity, she sued. There was no question that it was a case of discrimination - one of Ledbetter's supervisors even told her that she shouldn't be working in the plant, because women just make trouble - and a jury found in Ledbetter's favor.
But when the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, five of the nine justices decided that Ledbetter didn't deserve her day in court. The justices declared that if Ledbetter wanted to sue for fair pay, she should have filed her case within 180 days of the first moment of discrimination - even though she didn't find out about it for 16 years.
So Ledbetter got nothing.
The reasoning bordered on nonsensical and ignored the fact that, as in many workplaces, employee salaries were kept confidential at Goodyear. But because Ledbetter didn't sue in the first six months, Goodyear was essentially free to pay her less for the rest of her career. When someone like Ledbetter, who worked hard every day to take care of her family, learns that she's been the victim of discrimination, she should be able to turn to a court for justice. Now someone like Ledbetter would have the door slammed in her face.
Americans don't get to vote on Supreme Court Justices. But we do get to vote for the people who put them on the bench. As any high school civics teacher can tell you, the president nominates judges and senators confirm them. Once a judge is on the federal bench, he (or she) is there for life.
Voters need to understand that the votes senators take on Supreme Court nominees are among the most important of their careers. And Election Day is the time to tell them whether we approve of the job they've done.
In the midst of war, recession and global warming, it's easy to forget about the Supreme Court when it comes time to vote, but it could be the most important issue of all. And not just for women - from clean water to the laws that regulate medical devices, the Supreme Court touches all our lives.
When we go to the polls in November, let's make sure we support leaders who will give us a Supreme Court that stands for justice for all Americans.
- Kathryn Kolbert is president of People For the American Way and People For Foundation. Recognized repeatedly by The National Law Journal as one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America," she oversees all of People For's programs, including its "Save the Court" campaign, which shows voters the impact of elections on the federal courts. www.pfaw.org