Lilly Ledbetter began working for Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Gadsden, Ala., in 1979. Nineteen years later she received an anonymous note informing her that she had made less than her male counterparts for years.
Nearing retirement, Ledbetter filed suit against her employer for discrimination. A jury in federal court initially awarded Ledbetter an award of $3.8 million. The judge in that case informed her that she’d only be eligible to receive $300,000. The law only allowed claimants to receive back pay and benefits for two years from the point of the suit.
Goodyear appealed and, eventually, the Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter. They argued that while she had been discriminated against, she had not filed her suit early enough. Ledbetter pressed on and, eventually, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
This week on the Reckon Interview, we’re discussing the impact of the Supreme Court on the South.
Ledbetter knows what it’s like to lose a Supreme Court case and to keep fighting. She shares her experience with Reckon and her concerns about the 2020 election and confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett.
Also, Fred Smith, a constitutional law professor at Emory University, explains the history of the Supreme Court in the South. The court has the power to expand or to limit access to civil and human rights. That power has played a long role in either enabling Southern state governments or intervening on behalf of citizens.
Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Lilly Ledbetter. You can find excerpts from our discussion with Fred Smith here. And you can listen to the whole episode here.
Lilly Ledbetter on losing her Supreme Court ruling
Well, I really had hope. When you’re in anything like this, you never, never give up hope. Always have hope, right ‘til the bitter end. And then you look for the good out of what you got. There’s always got to be some good in it, too. But I never gave up hope.
I continued to hope and believe that my fates would carry me through and somehow [the Supreme Court] would understand like the local federal court. But they didn’t.
Sandra Day O’Connor had retired. She had left due to her husband’s illness. She was no longer there. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only female and Alito had just gone on the bench and so had Chief Justice Roberts.
When I testified before Ted Kennedy’s committee in Washington, they had put together charts on both of those fellows, what they said in confirmation and how they had ruled since they had been on the Supreme Court. They did not even appear to be the same person. I mean it was so far out in left field. Because I remember distinctly Chief Justice Roberts said in his confirmation hearing, he would call balls and strikes. He would follow the precedent interpretations of the law. And all the cases like mine before had gone on through. Because it was based on paycheck accrual rule. If you were still getting a check, like I was, you could still file a charge. And that’s what I did.
That’s what we’ve got secured today [through the Lilly Ledbetter Act]. But what they nitpicked and found a little technicality somewhere in the Title VII. I’m not a lawyer, I should be, but I can’t explain it exact. But they found some way. And Alito said, “Oh, she was discriminated against. Her problem is she waited too long.”
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent, loud and clear. They said the words would bounce off the walls because it was so quiet. And she said, it’s up to Congress to change this injustice back. She said, it is not right. She said, Congress, the ball is in your court. She said, this is not right. These people have no idea what they’re doing.
Lilly Ledbetter on continuing the fight in Congress
The ball went immediately over to the House. And the Education and Labor Committee, chaired by Congressman George Miller from California, started working on the bill. And that’s the committee that decided to name it after me.
I was told by the committee that they hoped that it would also cover me in arrears in my award. But my lawyers told me immediately, that sounds wonderful, but we’ve never known that to work out. And I accepted that. I still never had gotten any hope about the money. Because when I needed that money was when we were struggling as a young family.
Of course, I need it today, too. My retirement would be really a whole lot better. And life would be much easier if I could have gotten my retirements up. Because I’ve been retired from Goodyear now since 1998. And they’ve saved a lot of money, or whoever did with a retirement. And the same thing with social security. Everything in my 401k went by. It is a shame.
Lilly Ledbetter on the politics of SCOTUS
It’s not changing for the better.
When I was coming along through the years and voting for presidents, I’d hear occasionally somebody point out that when we elected a president, they might be appointing a Supreme Court justice. But I never gave it much thought. Because I never had any idea that Lilly Ledbetter would end up in the Supreme Court with a case. No thoughts.
Now I’m very careful who I vote for. I know who they stand for. I know where they’ve been. I know what their job is. I don’t necessarily depend on what’s in the writings or in the articles. I depend on where has that person been and what kind of track record? How do their coworkers and their family get along with them? Because that tells you a lot about an individual.
Now if they’re liked, that doesn’t bother me or not. What bothers me is their knowledge and how they treat people.
I had the great opportunity to testify on behalf of Elena Kagan. I was the first normal citizen to testify on her behalf. And that was a great opportunity. And it was one I didn’t take lightly. I researched her. I checked out everybody I could find at Harvard Law and other places that she had held her positions and found out everything I could before I endorsed her. And she has lived up to everything that I expected.
Lilly Ledbetter on the Amy Coney Barrett nomination
We should not be confirming anyone in two weeks. That’s just too quick, especially with the election going on. People need to think about this because, whoever. If [Amy Coney Barrett] is appointed, she will be on that bench the rest of her life until she dies or chooses to leave on her own. You can’t fire her. You can’t get rid of her. You don’t do any job evaluations. She’s there for the rest of her life.
This is scary. You need people who know and think about families. Just like today. What little I heard this morning; they’re talking about health care. And then I live in a state, health care in this state is wishy washy. Some people have it. Some people don’t. And those who don’t, they’re suffering, and most of them are children. It scares me.
That’s why I get up every day and hope that I can make a difference in somebody’s life to say, you know, she made me think. I need to think about what I’m doing with this vote.
I’ve had so many people this year to give me one reason why they want to vote against someone. I said, look, you better look at the whole package. Just one negative item just doesn’t get it from me. I said, I don’t agree with everybody. I’ve never agreed with everybody. And that’s just human nature. We don’t. You don’t at home. You don’t in Washington. And you don’t in the state of Alabama.
But we have to pick and choose what takes care of our families. This is a family affair. It’s serious.
To hear more from Lilly Ledbetter about how her community reacted to her suit, listen to the full episode here.
Reckon Interview Season Three
- One: The fight for the vote and how to ensure your vote counts
- Two: How the South created modern politics and what’s at stake in 2020
- Three: How the South nearly blocked women’s suffrage
- Four: To live here, you have to fight: Coalition building in the South
- Five: A system broken by design: The politics of health care
- Six: The death of ‘stick to sports’: The politics of football
- Seven: Can the South handle another recession?
- Eight: ‘It’s not random’: The origins of America’s broken justice system
- Nine: The South vs. The Establishment: Jaime Harrison discusses the South Carolina Senate race
- Ten: The “Doug Jones Effect”