By Elesha Gayman Shahinllari
If there is anyone who knows that courts matter, it’s Lilly Ledbetter! On July 10, she shared her personal journal through the United States judicial system with more than 400 people who gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, for an event sponsored by the Nebraska Coalition for Constitutional Values, a coalition started by the NCJW Omaha Section.
In today’s workplace women make on average $0.77 for every $1.00 a man makes. Now imagine what it must feel like to learn that after 19 years of service with your employer you are only making $0.40 for every $1.00 your male counterparts are earning for the exact same job. This was the case for Lilly Ledbetter.
Lilly Ledbetter won an initial judgment of $3 million in federal court, but her victory was short lived. After nearly a decade of litigation, the United States Supreme Court eventually ruled against the lower court’s judgment in a 5 to 4 split decision, stating that she had failed to file her claim within 180 days of when the wage discrimination first took place. The unfortunate thing is that Lilly had no way of knowing that she was getting unequal wages until an anonymous coworker tipped her off nearly 19 years after the fact. But Lilly’s loss was not just limited to the dollars she netted in every paycheck. As she reminded the rapt audience this inequality impacted her retirement benefits that the company was matching as a percentage of her wages as well as the level of Social Security she would one day be able to collect.
Lilly’s fight continues despite her loss in the Supreme Court. She was standing by the President Obama’s side when he signed his first bill into law (in the presence of NCJW leaders), The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which clarified that an individual has 180 days to file a claim from the point of discovery of discrimination. Lilly continues to travel the nation to educate the public on the Paycheck Fairness Act and why courts matter. She reminded the packed Omaha room that before our federal judges assume their lifetime terms they must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and when it comes to actions by the US Senate, the public has a vote and therefore a voice.
By the end of the event the 400-plus participants were feverishly writing postcards to their senators reminding them why courts matter. These postcards and the experiences of staff members from the offices of US Senators Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson’s staff who attended the event will ensure that the Nebraskans are heard on this issue.
Lilly Ledbetter was your average middle-class working mom who never anticipated her life story would involve a trial in front of the US Supreme Court. Perhaps that is what makes her story so compelling. Like Lilly, we never know when we might need to appeal to the judicial system to protect our rights. But we do know that when that day comes for us, or for any other person seeking justice, it is imperative that we have a fair and independent judiciary that is committed to constitutional values. That concern was the reason NCJW began the judicial nominations coalition in Nebraska and elsewhere. That’s why BenchMark: NCJW’s Judicial Nominations Campaign was created. And that’s what brought hundreds together in Omaha one recent July evening.