Ginsburg Dissent: Gonzales v. Carhart Case Summary

Ginsburg Dissent: Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 129 (2007)

The Supreme Court’s position on abortion has evolved and led to different outcomes over the years. In 2007, the Court heard Gonzales v. Carhart, a clash of morality, medicine, privacy, and women’s rights in abortions. In this summary of the case, Franklin Fegurgur, a 2L, highlights Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in which she voiced her concern over the precedents already established in Roe and Casey in which the Court said that “liberty finds no refuge in the jurisprudence of doubt.” Listen to Justice Ginsburg announce her dissent at https://apps.oyez.org/player/#/roberts2/opinion_announcement_audio/22038.

Facts:

In Gonzales, the Court considers the validity of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Plaintiffs included Dr. Leroy Carhart as well as other physicians who performed late-term abortions and wanted the Court to stop the Act from going into effect. In 2003, Congress passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in response to the Stenberg v. Carhart decision where the Court held that the Nebraska’s partial birth abortion statute violated the Constitution in the aftermath of Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Roe v. Wade. As in earlier decisions, the Court discussed the abortion procedures as the Act sought to regulate a manner of terminating fetal life.

One method the Act sought to prohibit was an intact dilation and extraction (D&E), a common late-term abortion procedure. Congress viewed the procedure as gruesome and inhumane. A main provision of the Act was to prohibit “knowingly performing a partial-birth abortion … that is [not] necessary to save the life of a mother.” The Act would effectually ban most late-term abortions which would place an undue burden on the right to an abortion established in Parenthood v. Casey.

The District Court agreed with the Plaintiffs that the Act was unconstitutional as it lacked an exception allowing the procedure where it is necessary to protect the health of the mother. Furthermore, the Act was “deficient because it covered not merely intact D&E but also certain other D&Es.” The Court of the Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling noting that the Constitution requires the legislatures to include a health exception for the mothers.

Issue:

Whether the Partial Abortion Ban Act violates the right of personal liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment because the Act lacks an exception for the health of the mother.

Holding:

Reversed. In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the Act by holding that the partial-birth abortion was not unconstitutionally vague nor did it impose an undue burden on the right to an abortion. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated that the “undue burden” test established in Casey is applicable to the instant case. The phrase referred to measures meant to discourage abortions, and to what degree these measures would be considered overly restrictive. Plaintiffs argued that an intact D&E is the safest method of abortion. Banning this safest method of abortion would not only place an undue burden upon the mother, but possibly risk her life. However, Justice Kennedy noted that the Act “allows a commonly used and generally accepted method, so it does not construct a substantial obstacle to the abortion right.” Furthermore, the majority noted that because the Act applies to only a specific method of abortion (intact D&E) the ban was “not unconstitutionally vague, overbroad, or an undue burden on the decision to obtain an abortion.”

Dissent:

Justice Ginsburg sharply disagreed with the majority noting that “the Court’s hostility to the right Roe and Casey secured is not concealed.” She believed it was irrational for the State to further any legitimate interest in an equally gruesome procedure, which may be similarly characterized as brutal. In her view, “The law saves not a single fetus from destruction, for it targets only a method of performing abortion.” Furthermore, she believed that the Act would “chip away” a right that was declared by the Supreme Court as central to women’s lives. Although Gonzales did not discard previous cases such as Roe or Casey, it was inconsistent with the very principles of stare decisis. Instead of following clear prior holdings, the Court would take deference to this “legislative override of our Constitution-based rulings.”

Justice Ginsburg, true to her roots in litigation for gender equality said of the majority opinion when announcing her dissent, “Notably, the solution the Court approves is not to require doctors to inform women adequately of the different procedures they might choose and the risks each entails. Instead the Court shields the woman by denying her any choice in the matter and this way of protecting women recalls ancient notions about women’s place in society and under the constitution ideas that have long since been discredited.”

Ginsburg Dissent: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Case Summary

This case summary was written by Elizabeth Bowman for the Law Library blog.  You can listen to Justice Ginsburg announce her dissent and imagine her wearing her “dissent jabot” (see the display in the Law Library lobby):  https://apps.oyez.org/player/#/roberts2/opinion_announcement_audio/22216.  The decision in this case led to the enactment of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-2, § 1, Jan. 29, 2009, 123 Stat. 5.  You may view the Act on Heinonline’s U.S. Statutes at Large collection or on http://www.congress.gov using advanced search and selecting the 111th Congress.

Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007)

Lilly Ledbetter worked as a supervisor for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company at its Gadsden, Alabama plant from 1979 to 1998.  By the end of Ledbetter’s tenure, her salary was $3,727.00, while her lowest paid male counterpart earned $4,286.00 and the highest paid earned $5,236.00.  In 1998, Ledbetter filed a complaint with EEOC and then sued Goodyear under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that poor performance evaluations because of her sex resulted in lower pay than her male coworkers.

A jury found for Ledbetter and awarded her over $3.5 million in back pay and damages, which the district judge later reduced to $360,000.  The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that Ledbetter’s claim was time barred. Title VII requires that a charge must be filed with EEOC within 180 or 300 days, depending on the state, from the date of the alleged violation.  The Court of Appeals concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove that Goodyear acted with discriminatory intent in making only two pay decisions that occurred within the 180-day filing deadline.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether and under what circumstances a plaintiff may bring an action under Title VII alleging illegal pay discrimination when the disparate pay is received during the statutory limitations period, but is the result of intentionally discriminatory pay decisions that occurred outside the limitations period.  In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Alito, the Court held that discriminatory intent must occur during the 180-day statutory period, and thus, Ledbetter’s claim was untimely filed.

Justice Ginsburg sharply disagreed with the majority and read from the bench her passionate dissent.  Joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, she argued that pay disparities are significantly different from other types of discrimination, such as termination or failure to promote, which are “easy to identify” and allow a worker to immediately seek redress. Pay discrimination on the other hand is often “hidden from sight”, occur in increments, and become evident only over time.  Justice Ginsburg explained that rather than viewing salary setting decisions as “discrete from prior and subsequent decisions,” as the majority did, the better approach, consistent with Title VII’s purpose and Supreme Court precedent, is to “treat each payment of a wage or salary infected by sex-based discrimination” as an unlawful employment practice and “prior decisions, outside the 180–day charge-filing period,” although not actionable themselves, as “relevant in determining the lawfulness of conduct within the period.”  Justice Ginsburg took into account the realities of the workplace in her opinion.  She ultimately determined that the Court’s “cramped” interpretation of Title VII was “incompatible with the statute’s broad remedial purpose.”

Less than two years later, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law in 2009, which reversed the Supreme Court’s decision and makes clear that each discriminatory paycheck resets the 180-day limit to file a claim, helping to ensure that individuals subjected to illegal pay discrimination may effectively assert their rights.