Thursday, January 19, 2012

Supreme Court Decisions: Corporations as powerful “persons”

William Blackstone once said “the most powerful individual in the state will be cautious of committing any flagrant invasion of another’s right, when he knows that the fact of his oppression must be examined and decided by twelve indifferent men.”

The jury is particularly important today, as powerful corporations encroach ever further into our political system. The jury is important to help counter-balance the powerful influence of the special corporate interests with those of the common people. As corporations use their great financial assets to lobby their own legislative agendas and ply their influence on even the executive branch of government, the jury stands as a sanctuary for justice for the American people.

Judges at all levels work daily to ensure that the court system protects the rights of everyday Americans. As a grassroots movement to protect the rights of “human persons” in front of our court system, we need to make clear that our judicial system must continue to offer a forum for all people, not just special interests, to seek justice.

But in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, a slim 5-4 majority allowed giant corporations unlimited license to drown out the voices of American citizens in our elections.

There have been over recent years many Pro-corporate Supreme Court decisions. In Supreme Court cases below it is easily demonstrated how these legal precedents can do great damage to the rights of everyday Americans, minorities, the elderly, consumers, the middle class, the environment, and even to established law.

For examples of how the Supreme Court decisions have eroded the rights of “human persons” see these important Supreme Court Decisions:

The right to a jury trial - Rent-A-Center

The Supreme Court in the Rent-A-Center case has diverted working Americans away from a jury by forcing them before an arbitrator. In Rent-A-Center, for example, the Court stopped American employees who work under binding mandatory arbitration agreements from challenging unfair treatment by their employers in court. Americans, the slim majority held, cannot even go before a court to challenge an unconscionable arbitration agreement.

The heightened legal standard to plead injury - Ashcroft v. Iqbal

Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court held that top government officials were not liable for the actions of their subordinates absent evidence that they ordered the allegedly discriminatory activity. At issue was whether current and former federal officials, including FBI Director Robert Mueller and former United States Attorney General John Ashcroft, were entitled to qualified immunity against an allegation that they knew of or condoned racial and religious discrimination against individuals detained after of the September 11 attacks. In this case the Supreme Court overhauled the long-settled standard for what an injured person must allege in a complaint to get a case to a jury. In 2007, the Court had handed down its opinion in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly. The Twombly case had previously set the civil concept of “plausibility” as the dividing line between complaints that do and do not state a claim. In Ashcroft v Iqbal, the Supreme Court held that top government officials are not liable for the actions of their subordinates absent evidence that they ordered the allegedly discriminatory activity. The heightened fact pleading standards, as required by Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, was extended to all Federal court cases. So after Twombly and Iqbal, these higher pleading standards will mean that American workers will all have a harder time winning legal cases about corporate wrongs.

The right to bring class action law suits - Walmart

In the largest employee class-action lawsuit in U.S. history the Supreme Court ruled that the case would not go forward as a class action suit. This was a major victory for Wal-Mart Stores and the case had been potentially worth billions in damages to the plaintiffs. As many as 1.6 million female employees from Wal-Mart were included in the sex discrimination case. Instead the court agreed unanimously that the litigation could not proceed as a class action form. This Supreme Court Decision reversed a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The court split along 5-4 lines over whether the group presented a common claim in seeking an injunction that would have forced the retailer to change its employment practices.

The right of small businesses to compete with the big business - Leegin antitrust case

Consider the Leegin antitrust case, where the 5-4 majority on the Court reversed many decades of precedent that had kept prices low for consumers, and had helped small businesses compete with corporate giants. The Supreme Court in this decision overturned nearly a hundred years of antitrust precedent in a groundbreaking 5-4 decision in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. The decision over tuned a previous decision which made it per se illegal for a manufacturer and its distributor to agree on a minimum price at which the distributor may resell the manufacturer’s goods.

The right of victims of environmental disasters to obtain adequate compensation - Exxon v Baker

See the Supreme Court Case Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471 (2008). This Supreme Court decision took the opinion that the punitive damages awarded to the victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill should be reduced from US$2.5 billion to US$500 million.

Employment Discrimination based on race or gender – Ledbetter v Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), is an employment discrimination decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Alito held for the five-justice majority that employers cannot be sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act over race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made by the employer 180 days ago or more. Lilly Ledbetter found that she had been paid less than her male counterparts year after year despite working just as hard, Ms. Ledbetter brought suit against her employer. A jury heard the evidence in the case, found that the big corporation had indeed discriminated against Ms. Ledbetter, and awarded her back pay and damages. Then the corporation got the case before the Supreme Court. The conservatives on the Court decided to take the decision away from the jury.

Age Discrimination - Gross v FBL Services

In Gross v. FBL Services, a 54-year old man claimed that his employer had discriminated against him because of his age. A jury agreed. Again, the corporation turned to the Supreme Court. And again, a narrow majority of Justices overturned the jury decision – in the process making it more difficult for older Americans to prove they were wrongfully discriminated against on the basis of age.