Al Franken Takes On the Corporate Court

I want to flag a speech that Al Franken made on the Senate floor yesterday about the Supreme Court’s decision this week in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson. The legal issues in question were complicated, to say the least, but the impact of the Court’s decision on individual Americans is simple and clear. This excerpt is a little long, but it’s worth going to the Congressional Record and reading the whole thing. Franken explains:

On one side of the courtroom in this case was Rent-A-Center, a corporation that runs over 3,000 furniture and electronics rent-to-own stores across North America, with 21,000 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits. On the other side stood Antonio Jackson, an African-American account manager in Nevada who sought to bring a civil rights claim against his employer. Jackson claims that Rent-A-Center repeatedly passed him over for promotions and promoted non-African-American employees with less experience.

Although Jackson signed an employment contract agreeing to arbitrate all employment claims, he also knew the contract was unfair, so he challenged it in court. But yesterday the Supreme Court sided with Rent-A-Center, ruling that an arbitrator, not a court, should decide whether an arbitration clause is valid. Let me say that again. The arbitrator gets to decide whether an arbitration clause is valid. Let me repeat that. The arbitrator gets to decide whether the arbitration clause is valid. That is just one step away from letting the corporation itself decide whether a contract is fair.

In doing so, the Supreme Court made it even harder for ordinary people to protect their rights at work. Justice Stevens, not surprisingly, wrote the dissent. As he did in Gross, Stevens notes that the Supreme Court, yet again, decided this case along lines ``neither briefed by the parties nor relied upon by the Court of Appeals.'' In other words, the Supreme Court went out of its way to close those bronze doors--and keep them closed. Clearly, this is a ruling that Congress needs to fix, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to do so.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that the Supreme Court matters to average people--to our neighbors and our kids. Some have tried to convince us that Supreme Court rulings only matter if you want to burn a flag or sell pornography or commit some horrendous crime. But as Jamie Leigh Jones and Antonio Jackson show us, the Supreme Court is about much more than that. It is about whether you have a right to a workplace where you won't get raped and whether you can defend those rights in court before a jury afterwards. It is about whether corporations will continue to have inordinate power to control your life with their armies of lawyers and their contracts filled with fine print. It is about whether they can force you to sign away your rights in an unfair employment contract so you never see the inside of a courtroom. It is, quite frankly, about the kind of society we want to live in.

Next week, the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Those hearings provide a good opportunity for us to examine the legacy of the Roberts Court and talk about what it would mean to have a Court that instead cares about hard-working Americans.

Cases like this one often fly under the radar because the legal issues they deal with are hard to boil down to a soundbite or even a paragraph (I couldn’t make heads or tails of this initial SCOTUSblog summary of the case, much less Scalia’s opinion…which is why it’s great to have a legal staff around). But this is the kind of case that is the bread and butter of the Supreme Court’s work—questions of contracts and business deals and real estate that aren’t as easy to grasp and explosive as abortion and marriage and school prayer, but still make a very real difference in all of our lives. And that’s the kind of case that the Roberts Court has consistently been deciding on the side of powerful interests like Rent-A-Center over people like Antonio Jackson.

We hope Franken’s right that the current Court’s pro-corporate leanings are major topic of discussion at Kagan’s upcoming hearings. We’ve saved up more than a few questions for her on the subject.

 

PFAW