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How Does a Case Become a Law? Ask Lily Ledbetter

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 26, 2013 3:16 PM

In School House Rock! there's bill sitting on Capitol Hill, hoping and praying that he will become a law. He explains:

When I started, I wasn't even a bill, I was just an idea. Some folks back home decided they wanted a law passed, so they called their local Congressman and he said, "You're right, there ought to be a law." Then he sat down and wrote me out and introduced me to Congress. And I became a bill, and I'll remain a bill until they decide to make me a law.

Certainly, that's how many bills originate, but it's not the only way. The seeds for some bills start in the courts, not with the constituents. Take, for example, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which evolved from a lawsuit.

Lilly Ledbetter worked as supervisor at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Gadsden, Alabama from 1979 until 1998. Ledbetter pursued a pay discrimination claim against Goodyear after learning from an anonymous tip that she was paid less than all of the male supervisors at the plant.

When the matter went to trial, a jury concluded that Ledbetter -- whose salary was 40 percent lower than the highest-paid male supervisor -- was the victim of illegal pay discrimination. The jury awarded her $3 million, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that award.

The reason? Ledbetter's claim was barred by the statute of limitations because the discriminatory decisions about her pay had been made more than 180 days before the date she filed her charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to the court, the six-month filing period began to run the date that Goodyear first paid her less than her male peers.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Eleventh Circuit in 2007, and Ledbetter lost her case.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer -- disagreed. Justice Ginsburg criticized the majority's reasoning in her dissent, writing, "This is not the first time the Court has ordered a cramped interpretation of Title VII, incompatible with the statute's broad remedial purpose ... Once again, the ball is in Congress' court ... to correct this Court's parsimonious reading of Title VII."

While the legislative branch makes the laws, and the judicial branch interprets the laws, the legislature occasionally finds inspiration in the judiciary's opinions. That's what happened here. With the Ledbetter Act, Congress changed the law to say that the six-month filing clock restarts every time the worker receives a paycheck, The New York Times explains.

It's not just the "folks back home" that make suggestions for laws; sometimes, it's the folks on the bench. If you want to learn more about the cases that could inspire future laws, you'll find a treasure trove of resources on FindLaw.com.

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