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Big Business’s Big Day

June 24, 2013

With the Court’s rather anti-climactic ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, today’s biggest story involves a trio of huge wins by the business community and, in particular, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These three cases – all decided by 5-4 rulings along classic ideological lines – include two dealing with employment discrimination (Vance v. Ball State University and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar) and one dealing with a patient who alleges that she was severely injured by a generic drug’s side-effects (Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett). 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief in all three of these cases, winning all three.  That improved the Chamber’s record before the Roberts Court this Term to thirteen wins and three losses, including an undefeated record in closely divided cases like Bartlett, Nassar, and Vance.  Taken together, all three of these cases will greatly affect the lives of countless Americans nationwide.  In a Term dominated by high-profile cases on the meaning of equality, Vance and Nassar, which, until now, had flown under the radar, will make it harder for ordinary Americans to hold their employers accountable for alleged civil rights violations.  Furthermore, in a case that would likely have garnered much greater attention in a less momentous Term, Bartlett will make it harder for anyone harmed by a generic drug’s side-effects – in this specific case, allegedly resulting in burns over more than half of the plaintiff’s body – to recover damages from the drug manufacturer under state law.

Highlighting the stakes involved in the two employment discrimination cases, Justice Ginsburg, who dissented in both, took the unusual (and important) step of reading a statement from the bench that responded to both decisions.  As quoted by SCOTUSblog, Justice Ginsburg explained, “Both decisions dilute the strength of Title VII in ways Congress could not have intended. . . . Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court to correct this Court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII.”  Echoing her 2007 dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Justice Ginsburg used her dissents in both Vance and Nassar to call upon Congress to overturn these decisions.  Since both cases involve the Court’s interpretation of federal statutes, both decisions could be overturned by future legislation – just as Congress did in response to Ledbetter.

Following today’s three important decisions, the Chamber only has one case remaining on the Court’s docket this Term, Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, an important takings case.  Already, we know that this Term has been a hugely successful one for the Chamber, which builds off its remarkable success rate since Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined the Court.  On the other hand, it’s a sad day for employees and other victims of corporate misconduct.