A Hearing Without Being Heard

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

JACKSONVILLE, Ala. -- Lilly M. Ledbetter says she almost stopped breathing when she heard her name called that day, her eight-year battle over alleged pay discrimination finally reaching the ultimate legal forum, the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We'll hear argument next in Ledbetter versus Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. announced.

The odds are akin to being struck by lightning, having your case plucked from the thousands of others who have vowed, like you, to take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. And then you find it's not so much about you anymore.

It was the only time that November morning that any of the nine justices spoke Lilly Ledbetter's name.

When she thought back last week on the arguments before the court, she remembered them as not being much about her complaints about Goodyear, or Goodyear's complaints about her. "Except when my lawyer got up, it [seemed to be] based on changing the law somewhere down the line," she said. "That's what it boils down to, I guess. It tends to leave the person out."

At a forum late last year, Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen G. Breyer, usually the court's yin and yang on matters of constitutional interpretation, agreed that that is how it should be. They were asked whether their duty was to provide justice for those who came before the court or simply to interpret the law.

"The point of the law is to satisfy a human desire for justice," Breyer explained, but he added: "You don't necessarily get to that end by simply trying to look for what is the intuitively nicer result in each case."

Scalia was blunter. "By the time you get up to an appellate court -- and lawyers ought to learn this -- I don't much care about your particular case," he said. "I am not about to produce a better result in your case at the expense of creating terrible results in a hundred other cases."

A specific Supreme Court decision may contain obvious benefits for the winner -- see George W. Bush, circa 2000. But it can often be an inconclusive way station for the plaintiff, sometimes leading only to additional years of litigation.

Jose Antonio Lopez, for instance, has already won his case at the Supreme Court this term. The justices ruled 8 to 1 that the Bush administration cannot automatically deport legal immigrants convicted of minor drug crimes.

But the decision came a little late for Lopez, who had returned to Mexico rather than remain in jail to see if the Supreme Court would take his case. His lawyer is trying to get him a new hearing in this country. But the more lasting impact of Lopez v. Gonzales is that thousands of immigrants may now contest the government's deportation plans.

Supreme Court cases outlive the individuals who give them a name, and give rise to legal precedents beyond the specific cases. That explains why Ledbetter finds herself supported by a large contingent of women's groups and civil rights organizations that she had never given much thought to -- "The ACLU is supporting me; I don't know how we picked them up" -- and opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Bush administration.

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