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October 04, 2005

Forget the Constitution-- Roberts, Miers & Tyson

Too often, talk about the Supreme Court focuses only on abortion, gay rights and other social issues that make up a tiny part of the Court docket. More typical is the first case John Roberts presided over yesterday as Chieft Justice,

The combined cases, IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez and Tum v. Barber Foods, involve the question of whether workers in food processing plants have the right under the federal minimum wage law to pay for the time they have to spend getting dressed in protective clothing before starting regular work on the production line. At the companies in the lawsuit, workers had not been paid for the time "donning and doffing" the specialized gear and are bringing a class action lawsuit for lost pay.

There's no big constitutional issue involved, but for the plaintiff workers, the question would add up to millions of dollars -- and potentially billions of dollars for workers across the country.

What's involved is interpreting slightly ambiguous language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and a conservative amendment in the so-called Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947. See Scotusblog for the nitty gritty legal details. Most statutes have ambiguous language, so judges' biases and views play a big role in how they get implemented in practice.

What Roberts and Miers share is a history as corporate lawyers where they spent much of their professional lives arguing that those statutory ambiguities should be resolved in favor of their corporate clients. That likely business bias is far more relevant to 95% of their work as Supreme Court Justices than whatever views they have on broader constitutional or social issues.

And those evaluating Court nominations should worry about those biases far more than is evident in most of the public debate.

Posted by Nathan at October 4, 2005 08:58 AM