Jeffrey Toobin shot to national fame during the OJ trial, when he broke the story about the “race card.” For New Yorker readers, he speaks ex cathedra on all legal issues. For people who pay attention to the law, he’s a nincompoop. Ann Althouse just caught Toobin in a major error about the Hobby Lobby case. He was able to side firmly with the Obama administration only by ignoring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which serves as the basis for the plaintiffs’ claim.
I was not surprised. Back in 2007, I wrote about another embarrassing Toobin article purporting to explain the law to New Yorker readers. Since that post was on my old blog site, I’ll reprint it here and now:
Today’s entry on the long list of media dishonesty is Jeffrey Toobin’s article about the current United States Supreme Court, an article given pride of place as the first entry in the New Yorker‘s “The Talk of the Town.”
The article, which ends with a reminder to New Yorker readers to keep the Supreme Court in mind when they cast their votes in November 2008, manifestly intends to scare people into believing that a new Dark Age, led by Catholic men in dark robes, is dawning. Sadly for Toobin’s authorial honor, and unfortunately for his credulous liberal readers, the only way he can do this is to lie, both by implication and, I’m sorry to say, by an outright falsehood.
Toobin confines his little attack on the Court to three decisions that came out under Chief Justice Roberts aegis. As to one of those cases, involving a death sentence, I have no information and, since it’s in criminal law, I have no desire to educate myself about the case’s ins and outs. As to the other two, however, because I’m familiar both with the cases and with the type of jurisprudence at issue, I do feel capable to comment.
The first case Toobin goes after is Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., 127 S.Ct. 2162 (2007). This following paragraph constitutes Toobin’s entire discussion of the case and its outcome:
Moving with great swiftness, by the stately standards of the Court, Roberts, Alito, and their allies have already made progress on that agenda. In Alito’s first major opinion as a justice, earlier this year, he sharply restricted the ability of victims of employment discrimination to file lawsuits. The Court said that plaintiffs in such cases must bring their suits within a hundred and eighty days of, say, an unfair raise. But, because it generally takes employees longer than that to establish that they have been cheated, the effect of the ruling will be to foreclose many lawsuits.
What any sensible reader will understand from this terse summary of the case is that the reactionary Supreme Court, lusting after a return to the 19th Century’s golden era of unfettered employer rights, has foreclosed forever the possibility that employees can claim wage discrimination more than 180 days after that discrimination occurs. In the minds of Toobin’s readers, the justices have placed a permanent wall between these hapless employees and legal redress. Except that this understanding, which is really the only reasonable understanding possible based on the limited information Toobin provides, is entirely untrue.
What the Supreme Court said was that a Federal law imposing a 180 day deadline within which to file a wage discrimination begins to run on the date the employer makes the decision to discriminate, not on the date the employer cuts the last paycheck reflecting that discriminatory decision. That’s all.
Here’s the applicable law as summarized in Ledbetter:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it an “unlawful employment practice” to discriminate “against any individual with respect to his compensation … because of such individual’s … sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). An individual wishing to challenge an employment practice under this provision must first file a charge with the EEOC. § 2000e-5(e)(1). Such a charge must be filed within a specified period (either 180 or 300 days, depending on the State) “after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred,” ibid., and if the employee does not submit a timely EEOC charge, the employee may not challenge that practice in court, § 2000e-5(f)(1).
Ledbetter, 127 S.Ct. at 2166 -2167. In other words, Congress had mandated that if a person claims that her (or his) gender led her (or his) employer to pay her (or him) a discriminatory salary, then that person has between 180 or 300 days from the discriminatory act to file a claim with the EEOC.
Ms. Ledbetter argued that the legislatively vague phrase “alleged unlawful employment practice” should be understood to refer to her paycheck. Her interpretation would mean that every single paycheck starts a new cause of action (and, presumably, reaches back to encompass prior paychecks). Her employer contended that the “alleged unlawful employment practice,” if any such act existed, would be the employer’s decision to pay its employee a discriminatory amount, as opposed to the fruit of that decision (i.e., the paycheck). The Supreme Court carefully analyzed myriad prior decisions and concluded that the employer had the better argument.
Speaking personally, I find Alito’s analysis clear and compelling. As is always the case in the law (or at least mostly the case in the law), one can examine legal precedent and draw different conclusions or find entirely different cases to act as precedent. The dissent, for example, contends that it’s unreasonable to ask people to investigate how their pay ranks against their peers’ pay, and that they should be allowed to wait years, perhaps, before they figure out that they’re getting the short end of the salary stick. By advocating a different standard of responsibility for the employee, the dissent can look to different cases so as to reach a different outcome. And that, from beginning to end, is what Ledbetter is all about.
Knowing what the case is about helps one appreciate what the case is not about: It is not a ruling holding that, henceforth, employees must forever be barred from bringing wage discrimination claims if they don’t figure the problem out within 180 days of their most recent pay raise (or pay raise refusal). The Supreme Court is not making law. It is simply interpreting the law as written in light of case precedent. If the Legislature feels there’s a problem, it can change the law. That last is a singularly important point, since it goes to the heart of the difference between strict constructionists, who limit themselves to interpreting law, and judicial activists, who feel impelled to correct perceived Legislative errors, omissions, and ambiguities.
As I pointed out initially, Toobin’s short, elliptical analysis of the case utterly fails to explain to his readers that the majority was not making a law barring employees forever from complaining about wage discrimination more than 180 days after the fact, but was instead merely interpreting the law as written, leaving the matter open for Legislative change. This serious omission about the impact of a Supreme Court decision forces Toobin’s less informed readers to believe that the Supreme Court has dealt a permanent policy blow to the rights of American workers.
Toobin goes from misleading by omission to out-and-out misrepresentation when he discusses Gonzales v. Carhart, 127 S.Ct. 1610 (2007), the decision upholding Congress’ 2003 Partial Birth Abortion Ban. Here is Toobin’s summary. I’ve highlighted the language that is out-and-out false:
Most notoriously, the Court, for the first time in its history, upheld a categorical ban on an abortion procedure. The case dealt with so-called partial-birth abortion—a procedure performed rarely, often when there are extraordinary risks to the mother, the fetus, or both. But more important than the ruling were the implications of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion. The Court all but abandoned the reasoning of Roe v. Wade (and its reaffirmation in the 1992 Casey decision) and adopted instead the assumptions and the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement. To the Court, it was the partial-birth-abortion procedure, not the risks posed to the women who seek it, that was “laden with the power to devalue human life.” In the most startling passage in the opinion, Kennedy wrote, “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.” Small wonder that Kennedy’s search for such data was unavailing; notwithstanding the claims of the anti-abortion movement, no intellectually respectable support exists for this patronizing notion. The decision to have an abortion is never a simple one, but until this year the Court has said that the women affected, not the state, had the last word.
That last statement is just plain, absolutely, completely wrong.
Contrary to most people’s assumptions about Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct. 705, 35 L.Ed.2d 147 (1973), that case does not create an unfettered right to abortion. Instead, it established a delicate balancing act over the entire length of the pregnancy between the State’s interests and the woman’s interest in the fetus. In the first trimester, when the fetus is not viable outside the womb, the balancing favors the woman’s right to choose how she wants to handle her pregnancy. In the second trimester, as the fetus nears viability, the balance begins tipping in the State’s favor. And, in the third trimester, when the fetus is viable, the State’s interests may triumph:
With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the “compelling” point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. at 163, 93 S.Ct. at 732.
Because it has never been the law of the land that the woman affected “had the last word,” it is dead wrong when Toobin says that Gonzales marks a stunning reversal of American abortion law. Instead, Gonzales is nothing more than a recycling of principles already articulated in Roe v. Wade. No matter how people may fulminate about Justice Kennedy’s touchy-feely analysis of abortion (a bad writing habit he no doubt picked up from his years in a liberal dominated court), the fact remains that the decision he authored in Gonzales did not take away any rights already granted in Roe v. Wade — a case which more than 30 years ago ensured that, near the end of the pregnancy, the State’s interests, not the woman’s, can be given primacy.
Toobin, of course, is not the only liberal to try to make political capital out of what must be a deliberate mis-reading of Roe v. Wade’s clear language. Immediately after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Gonzales, Hillary Clinton issued a press release that also positioned the case as something entirely new and horrible:
Washington, DC — “This decision marks a dramatic departure from four decades of Supreme Court rulings that upheld a woman’s right to choose and recognized the importance of women’s health. Today’s decision blatantly defies the Court’s recent decision in 2000 striking down a state partial-birth abortion law because of its failure to provide an exception for the health of the mother. As the Supreme Court recognized in Roe v. Wade in 1973, this issue is complex and highly personal; the rights and lives of women must be taken into account. It is precisely this erosion of our constitutional rights that I warned against when I opposed the nominations of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.”
That Hillary created rights under Roe v. Wade that never existed in the first place isn’t too surprising. While she may be trained as a lawyer, she is first and foremost a politician, and one who has shown a willingness to do and say whatever it takes to obtain a political advantage.
That Toobin did the same thing is more disturbing. Toobin is not only a lawyer, he is a journalist who specializes in legal matters. His readers believe that he is using his legal knowledge and narrative fluidity to explain to them accurately legal matters that, while they may not be intelligible to the average person, nevertheless have immediate and significant impact on ordinary peoples’ lives. Toobin has taken this trust and used it to perpetuate lies. I’d cry “shame” but I suspect that, as to Toobin, that concept, whatever role it may once have had in his life, no longer exists.
UPDATE: Earl Aagaard reminds me that, while Roe v. Wade refutes Toobin’s statement, it was illusory in its effect:
“…Roe v. Wade…does not create an unfettered right to abortion. Instead, it established a delicate balancing act over the entire length of the pregnancy between the State’s interests and the woman’s interest in the fetus. ”
This is true, Bookworm…..but your post ignored the fact of Doe v. Bolton, issued the same day as Roe v. Wade. Doe says that a woman’s decision can be based on her “health”, and interprets health to include “mental health”, meaning that there is NO balance. A woman has only to say she might be suicidal if she has to carry the baby to term and the decision of the SCOTUS says she must be allowed to abort – through all nine months of pregnancy.
What Roe gave, Doe took away, and our country has FAR less restrictive abortion laws than Europe….ever since 1973.