When Congress Overrules, Judges Should Listen

Posted July 11, 2008 at 2:58pm

When federal courts threw out lawsuits for victims of a train accident, Congress and President Bush responded last year by passing a law to ensure compensation for victims of preventable accidents. This month, two federal appeals judges said reinstating the lawsuits was now a no-brainer. But a third judge would have thrown out suits by victims of the very accident that prompted the amendment, giving it such a narrow reading that it would be practically repealed. Though his view did not prevail, the case presents a cautionary tale for lawmakers seeking to undo misguided court decisions.

This perverse opinion arose from a terrible 2002 wreck in Minot, N.D., where a derailed train released anhydrous ammonia into the air, killing one person and injuring hundreds. Victims claimed that the railroad company was responsible, but courts held that any lawsuits were barred by the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970.

Congress passed the FRSA to create national safety standards. The law did not address compensation for accident victims, which had long been provided by state courts. So when courts later interpreted the law to bar any form of compensation, Congress reacted swiftly, tucking an amendment into a homeland security bill. The amendment said that lawsuits were permitted if companies violated federal standards, and the change was retroactive to the date of the Minot tragedy.

That should have been clear enough — but not for the dissenting appeals judge. He interpreted the amendment to mean that victims could now sue only if North Dakota passed a new law that mirrored the particulars of the amendment. Other states would have to do so, too, before the amendment would have any teeth. And if states did jump through these hoops? Well, the entire amendment still might be an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers. The railroad’s lawyers say they will press these arguments in further appeals.

This dissent is not a lone cry in the wilderness. It’s only a particularly dramatic example of the increasingly obstructionist approach of some judges to the laws Congress enacts — especially when private lawsuits are concerned.

One need look no further than last year’s Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. for another example of Congressional disapproval of a court decision being casually brushed aside. There, the high court revived a harsh view of time limits for employment discrimination, which Congress had sought to overrule in the 1991 Civil Rights Act. And even as Congressional leaders work to overrule Ledbetter, the court has agreed to hear another case that could extend its logic to retirement benefit disputes.

The common thread between these cases is the judicial nose-thumbing at laws that specifically disapprove of judicial decisions. While judges generally interpret the law in good faith, some refuse to accept that their interpretations of Congressional intent were dead wrong — even when Congress passes a new law telling judges they missed the boat. Instead of accepting their mistake, judges hold fast to their old opinions and invent reasons to ignore the objections of Congress.

Looking to 2009, Congressional Democrats appear poised to enact a wave of responses to court decisions limiting state common law and protections against employment discrimination. In addition to the Ledbetter bill, there are efforts to restore compensation for victims of faulty medical devices, and to undo restrictive interpretations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has talked of reversing January’s 5-3 ruling limiting securities fraud suits. And if they are successful in November, emboldened Democrats will likely identify many other decisions of the conservative Supreme Court and lower federal courts that have disregarded Congressional intent and harmed Americans.

The Minot case, along with Ledbetter, should be instructive for those efforts. When Congress sets out to reverse destructive court decisions, lawmakers should be aware that judges unsympathetic to Congress’ goals may find and exploit ambiguities wherever they can.

Unfortunately, this means lawmakers must write for a hostile audience if they are serious about restoring protections for workers and consumers. If fixes to federal law aren’t to be easily sidestepped, they must be ironclad.

Harper Jean Tobin is an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center.