Supreme Court tosses equal pay ruling released after judge's death

Supreme Court tosses equal pay ruling released after judge's death
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Monday tossed out a lower court decision that had allowed the vote of a judge who had died before the ruling was released to be counted. 

The justices in an unsigned opinion vacated the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a dispute over equal pay in which the court’s full panel of judges ruled employers can’t use prior salaries of a worker to justify paying women less than men.

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Because Judge Stephen Reinhardt died 11 days before the decision was issued, the justices said the 9th Circuit erred in counting him as a member of the majority.

“That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death. But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity,” the High Court said in its ruling Monday.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred with the judgment. She was the only justice to note her decision.

The ruling vacates a major decision from the 9th Circuit on equal pay in a case centered on a California teacher who sued her superintendent of schools after she realized she was being paid less than her colleagues.

The school claimed that prior salary is a “factor other than sex” that allows wage disparities under the Equal Pay Act.

In the majority ruling, Reinhardt had said that prior salary is not job-related and perpetuates the very gender-based assumptions about the value of work that the Equal Pay Act was designed to end.

“Unfortunately, over fifty years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, the wage gap between men and women is not some inert historical relic of bygone assumptions and sex-based oppression,” he had written.

“Although it may have improved since the passage of the Equal Pay Act, the gap persists today: women continue to receive lower earnings than men ‘across industries, occupations, and education levels.’” 

Though the 9th Circuit noted in a footnote that the majority opinion and all concurrences were final, and voting was completed by the en banc court prior to Reinhardt’s death, the Supreme Court said it is not aware of any rule that locks in a judge’s vote before an opinion is released.

The justices said “it is generally understood that a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released.”

The case now goes back to the 9th Circuit to be reconsidered without Reinhardt.