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Honesty And Ambiguity


Ann Althouse watched Lily Ledbetter and claims “what she should say, to be honest, is: ‘Our Court declined to rewrite the statute to be fair to me.'” To be honest, this is utter nonsense. It might be fair to say that Ledbetter wanted to “re-write” the statute if she simply claimed that the statute of limitations should just be ignored because it led to an unjust outcome, but of course she argued no such thing. Rather, she argued that since she was still being paid less due to gender discrimination, the discrimination was ongoing and hence her filing was within the 180-day window. Whether one agrees with this or not, it’s at a minimum a reasonable interpretation of the statute. Which is why this interpretation was shared by a federal district court, four justices of the Supreme Court, and — this is important — the EEOC itself. (As Ginsburg noted, “Similarly in line with the real-world characteristics of pay discrimination, the EEOC—the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII—has interpreted the Act to permit employees to challenge disparate pay each time it is received.” This remained its official position until well into the Bush administration.) If Althouse wants to claim that all of these people were advancing an indisputably erroneous interpretation of the statute, she really needs more than bare assertion.

Althouse’s sneering about Ledbetter doesn’t get any more coherent:

She goes on to blame the Senate for voting down the amendment that would make it possible to sue if you don’t know about the discrimination when it first takes place, but then she says that Barack Obama as President will solve the problem: “As President, he has promised to appoint Justices who will enforce laws that protect everyday people.” That doesn’t really add up. But she’s doing a good job of making us feel that the Democrats will protect the rights of working people.

Of course, what Ledbetter is saying makes perfect sense. Evidently, there are many institutional veto points that were responsible for allowing businesses to evade Title VII protections. A minority in the Senate was able to filibuster an attempt to override the court’s interpretation of the statute, and President Bush vetoed another attempt. Ledbetter is therefore right that more politicians who (unlike John McCain) actually support gender equality are needed. But it’s also true that this corrective action wouldn’t be necessary had a bare majority comprising the court’s most conservative members not interpreted an ambiguous statutory provision against Ledbetter. And in the modern regulatory state, these kinds of disputes matter; statutory provisions are often open to multiple reasonable interpretations, so who is responsible for applying them matters. The reactionary judges Althouse enthusiastically supports (just like John McCain) will tend to resolve such cases in favor of business interests; the kind of judges appointed by Obama are more likely to resolve ambiguities in favor of women’s rights. Hence, who appoints judges matters (and who controls the executive branch matters even more), and what Ledbetter is saying is right on all counts.

…I think what Yglesias says here is relevant to Althouse’s unique brand of feminism (as far as I can tell, it can be distilled into the following principles: 1. Hating Bill Clinton 2. There is no #2):

But at some point politics is about policy. If your opposition to pay discrimination doesn’t extend to favoring measures to halt pay discrimination, then what’s it worth? To people suffering from illegal discrimination, it’s worth nothing. To people who want to engage in illegal discrimination, it’s worth quite a lot.

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