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The Supreme Court's 2006-07 Term
Bell Atlantic v. Twombly (7-2 Decision): In this case, the Court altered the liberal pleadings standard that had been settled a half century ago in Conley v. Gibson (1957). Conley established that a plaintiff could get into court if her complaint merely contained a “short plain statement” showing that she was entitled to relief. In Twombly, the Court dispensed with this standard and stated that a plaintiff bringing an antitrust action must plead sufficient facts to make the claim plausibly meritorious. Prior to Ashcroft v. Iqbal (2009), it was widely believed that Twombly applied only to antitrust cases. Iqbal extended the standard set out in Twombly to all civil cases.
Gonzales v. Carhart (5-4 Decision): The Supreme Court eviscerated more than thirty years of precedent requiring that abortion restrictions provide an exemption to protect a pregnant woman’s health. The Court upheld a federal law banning so-called “partial birth abortions,” even though the law had no health exception. Despite their insistence at their confirmation hearings that they would adhere to precedent, Justices Alito and Roberts took the first opportunity they could to abandon a core element of Roe v. Wade, jeopardizing women’s health in the process. The majority’s opinion rested in part on antiquated moral judgments, including the rationale that women need to be saved from their own bad decisions
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (5-4 Decision): The Supreme Court overturned a jury’s finding that Goodyear had systematically paid Lilly Ledbetter less than her male co-workers. Again ignoring precedent, the five conservatives held that Ledbetter could not bring legal action for pay discrimination despite receiving less pay than men in the same position for approximately twenty years. The Court reasoned that Ledbetter should have brought the case within 180 days of the first act of pay discrimination—regardless of the fact that she had no way of learning of the discrepancy until much later or that the discrimination continued for two decades. In dissent, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that the majority’s holding contravened past Supreme Court decisions that each time an employee is paid a wage based on discrimination the employer has violated the law.
Leegin Creative Leather Prods, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (5-4 Decision): The Supreme Court overruled nearly 100 years of precedent and held that manufacturers and retailers of consumer goods could engage in price-fixing. In 1911, the Supreme Court held in Dr. Miles Medical CO. v. John D. Park & Sons Co. that resale price maintenance agreements between a manufacturer and a retailer, in which a retailer agrees not to price below a specified level, are per se price-fixing that violates Section 1 of the Sherman Act. In Leegin, the majority expressly overruled Dr. Miles, abandoning its bright line rule and holding that resale price maintenance agreements may be legal on a case by case basis if deemed reasonable by a trial court. Manufacturers can now set minimum prices on products and force retailers to refrain from discounting. As the Wall Street Journal put it, manufacturers now have “broad new legal powers that amount to a type of price-fixing.” State attorneys general have since reported an increase in price-fixing, and one expert has said that Leegin has created “the potential for a reshaping of the retail landscape in America.” Experts also warn that resale price maintenance can feed inflation; in his dissent, Justice Breyer estimated that legalizing price-setting could add $300 billion to annual consumer costs.
Morse v. Frederick (5-4 Decision): Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the five conservatives, limited the rights of high school students to express themselves. In 1969, the Supreme Court had said that students do not “shed their constitutional rights… at the schoolhouse gates.” After nearly forty years of precedent, however, the Roberts Court held that school authorities could suppress speech purportedly advocating illegal drug use, even when that speech does not take place on school grounds. This holding threatens to limit the ability of teenagers to debate a variety of important issues, including, but not limited to, the wisdom of our country’s “war on drugs.”
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (5-4 Decision): In two companion school desegregation cases, the five conservative justices undercut one of our nation’s most cherished precedents, Brown v. Board of Education. In these cases, the majority struck down two voluntary school integration programs run by democratically-elected school boards. Even though the five conservative justices have all expressed their ostensible respect for Brown, in these two cases, they turned Brown on its head and damaged its promise of racial equality. By declaring voluntary race-based school integration plans unconstitutional, the Court undid years of precedent and undermined settled federal law. As Justice Breyer wrote in dissent, “What has happened to stare decisis? … This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret.” Justice Stevens noted poignantly, “It is my firm conviction that no Member of the Court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today’s decision.”