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Justices Rule on Wal-Mart Discrimination, Global Warming Lawsuits

June 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In two major decisions Monday, the Supreme Court threw out the largest class-action lawsuit in history and rejected a global warming lawsuit against power compannies. Gwen Ifill discusses the rulings with The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle.
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GWEN IFILL: The Supreme Court today sided with Wal-Mart to stop the largest gender discrimination lawsuit in history. More than 1.5 million current and former employees accused the chain of paying women less than men, and promoting them less frequently.

In a separate decision and in a defeat for environmentalists, the court ruled unanimously that it’s up to the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Here, as always, to walk us through how the justices ruled and why is Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal.”

Let’s start with that Wal-Mart case, big case, Marcia.

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MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: Very big, yes.

GWEN IFILL: It fell apart on what grounds?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, first of all, this case wasn’t about whether Wal-Mart discriminated against women. The court didn’t face that question.

The question before the court was whether these women, current and past employees, could join together in what’s called a class-action to claim that Wal-Mart discriminated against them in pay and in promotions. So, there were really two major parts to the decision, Gwen.

The first part was the lower court had approved a class-action for these women. Was it a proper class-action under the federal rules? The court, led by Justice Scalia, unanimously said, no, it was the wrong — it was formed under the wrong federal rule. This was a class that didn’t allow monetary relief. And these women were seeking money relief, back pay.

GWEN IFILL: Back pay.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

But the second part of the decision, and potentially more significant, the justices split 5-4, more along ideological lines. That part of the decision really had to do with a threshold element for having a class-action. Justice Scalia said that these women didn’t have what is called issues of law and fact that were common to all of them.

GWEN IFILL: Which is to say that these women were from all over the country. They were a lot of different Wal-Mart stores. An even though they had complaints which, under their argument, fell under the rubric of discrimination, they weren’t the same underlying case.

MARCIA COYLE: That was — that’s what he said.

He said that because they wanted to sue for literally millions of employment decisions, there had to be some glue holding all the alleged reasons for the discrimination together. He said they had not provided significant proof that Wal-Mart operated under a general policy of discrimination.

GWEN IFILL: Something which they didn’t actually address. Justice Ginsburg disagreed with that.

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely. She led four dissenters.

And she said that the women’s stories of what happened to them in the individual stores suggested that Wal-Mart’s corporate culture was suffused with gender bias. She said they also had statistical evidence that they provided that showed, for example, that women held 70 percent of the hourly jobs in Wal-Mart stores, but only 33 percent of management positions, and also that women were paid less than men in every region.

And even where men and women were hired for the same job at the same time, the pay gap widened over time.

GWEN IFILL: In the end, did this fail for — on the part of the plaintiffs because they were not able to make the case — they brought it the wrong way, because of the process of the way it got to the Supreme Court, or because of the underlying arguments they were making that weren’t hanging together?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, it had to be both, because the arguments they made had to show that they met the requirements of the federal rules for a class-action.

Justice Ginsburg ultimately said that Justice Scalia and the majority focused more on what distinguished the women in this class than on what united them.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s — we’re going to talk about the Wal-Mart case a little bit more. Jeff Brown is going to.

So let’s talk about the second case, the EPA case today.

MARCIA COYLE: Very different case.

GWEN IFILL: Very different case, except, in this case, states were trying to sue these governments, these utilities, actually, in order to be able to — to — to what? Finish my sentence for me.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. OK.

There were six states, New York City and three land trusts that wanted to bring what is called a public nuisance lawsuit against the utilities, on the grounds that their carbon dioxide emissions contributed to global warming.

So, the issue before the Supreme Court was whether these states and the land trusts could use a public nuisance lawsuit, which is — public nuisance is a very old common-law doctrine. Justice Ginsburg wrote for a unanimous court here.

She said that the question was who decides this kind of issue, this global kind — global warming kind of issue? Is it the executive branch agency to which Congress has delegated authority in this area, or is it the courts? She decided — the court decided unanimously that it is the executive branch agency.

She said that the federal Clean Air Act and the authority delegated to the Environmental Protection Agency displaced that old public nuisance doctrine that is being used here.

GWEN IFILL: But didn’t this case end up coming to the court because these states, these local — these local land trusts felt like the EPA wasn’t handling this?

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely. In fact, one of their arguments was that, really, EPA and the Clean Air Act shouldn’t displace their lawsuit until EPA actually comes forward with rules governing greenhouse gas emissions.

But, again, Justice Ginsburg explained that it’s altogether fitting that EPA be the primary regulator here. She said that judges don’t have the scientific, technological expertise at hand that an agency has in order to deal with the complex issues that are — involve global warming.

GWEN IFILL: We just talked about this case a couple of months ago sitting here at this table. And this is one of those cases it seems in the end where the Obama administration was kind of arguing against its own policy?

MARCIA COYLE: The Obama administration really disappointed environmental groups here, because it did come into the case — one of the utilities is the Tennessee Valley Authority, so that it is a federal agency.

The Obama administration told the court that EPA was making progress here and was going forward with the rule-making, and it didn’t want the courts to intervene until EPA did what it was supposed to do. And the court accepted that argument.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Marcia Coyle, another busy day.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, it was. And we have maybe two more left.

GWEN IFILL: Two more left.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: OK, we will talk to you then.

MARCIA COYLE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Thanks.