The Supreme Court continues its current round of hearings on Monday with a pair of cases on down-to-earth issues of how law affects workers who toil at blue-collar jobs. Both cases turn on seemingly mundane questions of law: is a railroad train being used when a worker is injured on it while it is temporarily idle before resuming its journey, and does a baggage handler at an airport work in transportation?
Both cases are unusual in an important way: in each, eight Justices will be reviewing past work by Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In her former role as a federal appeals court judge, she joined in the decision being reviewed in Monday’s first case, and, in the second, her appeals court colleagues made their decision based on principles she had fashioned earlier. She has taken herself out of both, perhaps leading to 4-to-4 ties (meaning no definitive results).
The “live” audio (no video) can be heard at Quick Links on the Supreme Court’s homepage – supremecourt.gov – and at c-span.org/supremecourt and C-Span Now App.
First hearing: LeDure v. Union Pacific Railroad. It will begin at 10 a.m., set for 70 minutes.
Background: Edmund Burke, the 18th Century British statesman and political philosopher, gave up early the study of law out of bitter disappointment with its logic and its rules, preferring instead a life of ideas and speculative inquiry. He once wrote: “The law has been confined and drawn up into a narrow and inglorious study…[it is] the very refuse of the schools.” Historians sensitive to irony recall another of his comments: “Law sharpens the mind by narrowing it.”
Now and then, Supreme Court cases come along that seem to prove Burke’s point. That could be true of two cases in which simple words or phrases, run through the rigor of legal reasoning, with competing interests at stake, were given conflicting meanings by differing courts, turning common-sense reading of laws into riddles.
A court interpreting a law starts with the actual words of the text, but then can range rather widely over past precedents, historical understandings, similar but not identical circumstances, the intent of those who wrote a law, and the debates when the law was being considered. The facts, too, can be a significant factor.
For decades, and today, judges at all levels debate endlessly what is the proper way to read statutes. In sum, what goes into the inquiry strongly shapes the outcome.
Both of the cases coming up in the Court on Monday involve interpretations of laws that Congress passed to deal with specialized issues of workers’ rights or their safety on the job.
Here is the situation in the first case:
Bradley LeDure, a longtime locomotive engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad, arrived at work in the railyard in Salem, Ill., early in the morning of August 12, 2016. A freight train had just arrived, and was due to depart shortly to continue its trip to Missouri with a fresh crew, including LeDure. It was on a side track. It was LeDure’s job to inspect the locomotives, and decide which should pull the train as it resumed the trip.
Moving along a walkway on the back of one of the locomotives, he slipped and fell. He injured his shoulders, spine, neck, head and hands. (His injuries required multiple surgeries and he would later be declared permanently disabled.)
Suing Union Pacific, LeDure claimed that the railroad had failed to inspect the locomotive and failed to keep its walkways free of spilled oil. His lawsuit required the courts to interpret two federal laws, one passed in 1911 that requires railroads to strictly observe safety measures specifically for their locomotives, and one passed in 1908 that allows injured workers to sue for a railroad’s failure to assure workplace safety.
A federal trial judge rejected LeDure’s lawsuit, concluding that he had no right to sue under the 1911 locomotive law. That law says that “a railroad carrier may use or allow to be used a locomotive…on its railroad line only when the locomotive…and its parts and appurtenances are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury.”
The key words, the judge found, were “use” and “used.” The locomotive on which LeDure was injured, the judge ruled, was not “in use” at the time. Conceding that the federal courts “are all over the place” in deciding what that means, the judge concluded that LeDure was preparing the locomotive for use, when it was idled and not ready “for its next use.”
The federal appeals court agreed, and ruled for Union Pacific. LeDure appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the train in the railyard was, legally, “in use.” The Court agreed to clear up a conflict among the appeals courts on the issue (with Justice Barrett not taking no part).
The question before the Court: What did Congress mean when it allowed railroad workers to sue if they are injured at work, if their train was “in use” at the time of their injury?
Significance: Congress has been working since 1893 to try to make working for railroads less hazardous than it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The resulting requirements for safe conditions of railroad locomotives are so strong that, if a railroad is found to have violated them, it will be held strictly liable. The Supreme Court commented in a 1938 opinion: “The duty is an absolute one, and the carrier is not excused by any showing of care, however assiduous.” Thus, a worker can be assigned no part of the blame for an injury on a locomotive.
The law, in other words, tilts sharply in favor of workers and their safety. But, before a worker can win a case over an injury, the courts must find that there was, in legal terms, a violation of the specific words of the law. And, however simply Congress may have tried to make those words, history shows that the interpretations can vary significantly.
Second hearing on Monday: Southwest Airlines v. Saxon. This hearing, to begin after the railroad case finishes, is scheduled for one hour.
Background: This case, too, will take the Court back to a point fairly early in the 20th Century, once again to analyze the handiwork of Congress in dealing with legal disputes in the workplace or in business transactions. The law at issue is the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925, enacted to encourage settlement of legal disputes by an agreed process that is intended mainly to keep them out of court and thus to reduce their cost.
Twice last week, and now this third time in the current sitting, the Court’s focus will be on the law of arbitration. Indeed, it will do so again, a fourth time, later this week. The frequency of the appearance of these cases on the Court’s hearing calendar may be an illustration that arbitration is being used more often, or that it is breaking down more often and leading to more court cases to interpret the law, perhaps in new factual scenarios.
But there might be something else at work: perhaps Congress did not write the 1925 law with sufficient precision that more and more interpretation is asked of the courts — with more potential for disagreement.
Here is the situation in this case:
Latrice Saxon works for Southwest Airlines as a supervisor of crews that load and unload passenger bags and cargo from planes at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Her assignment is to train and supervise others, although now and then she personally handles baggage.
Southwest has a labor contract governing workers’ rights for many of its employees but Saxon as a supervisor is not covered. As part of her job, however, she must agree to take to arbitration any dispute over working conditions. She must do so herself, not in a group.
In January 2019, Saxon filed a lawsuit under federal wage-and-hour law, which guarantees overtime pay, and did so on behalf of herself and other baggage supervisors at Midway. She claimed that Southwest has a legal duty to pay for overtime work. She argued that she was not required to go to arbitration because she worked in the transportation industry, and that those employees are exempted from the Federal Arbitration Act.
A federal trial judge ruled for Southwest Airlines, relying on an interpretation of the Act’s provision that excludes from the duty to arbitrate “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”
Because airline workers whose only job is to load and unload baggage from planes, and do not themselves move across state lines, they do not “engage in foreign or interstate commerce,” the judge ruled.
Saxon took the case to the federal appeals court, and won. The key, that court said, is whether the loaders “are actively involved in the enterprise of moving good across interstate lines.”
While saying that this line is not “easy to draw,” the appeals court concluded that Saxon and other loading supervisors “fall on the transportation worker side of the line….A central part of their job is the loading and unloading of cargo for planes on interstate and international flights.”
Southwest appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the 1925 law means that a transportation worker must personally carry goods across state boundaries in order to be exempt from the obligation to arbitrate a wage dispute. The Court agreed to settle the meaning of the exemption (with Barrett again not taking part).
The question before the Court: Does the 1925 federal arbitration law exempt workers in the transportation industry, if they do not personally cross state lines in doing their jobs?
Significance: The Constitution’s Article I, Section 8, gives Congress power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states.” As history under that clause has shown over and over again, “commerce” and “regulate” are words that can have many meanings, and Congress has applied many of them.
The Supreme Court has gone back and forth on what it will allow Congress to do under the Commerce Clause.
Perhaps the outermost exercise of that power that was upheld by the Court (unanimously, at that) was a 1938 law under which an Ohio farmer was fined for growing 29 acres if wheat when his allotment was only 11 acres. He never sold any of it, but used it to feed his livestock. The Court ruled, however, that Congress could legitimately reach that far, as part of an effort to stabilize farm prices across the nation during the Great Depression.
In more modern times, however, the Court has been cutting back on that power, striking down such laws as federal controls on carrying guns near schools, protecting women from domestic violence, and the sale of illegal drugs.
In deciding the cargo-handlers case from Midway Airport, today’s Court will be attempting again to define “interstate commerce,” in a factual situation in which private employees work on airport ramps and do not themselves board the planes carrying cargo across state lines.
The current Court is as much inclined as any in the past to find its members in dispute about the meaning of the Commerce Clause. That could make a difference in this case, because Justice Barrett has disqualified herself, leaving eight members to potentially split evenly. When that happens, it leaves intact the lower court’s decision, without an opinion by the Justices.
That could also be the result in the railroad worker’s case, since there is a potential for an even split there, too, without Justice Barrett taking part.
On Tuesday, the Court will hear one case, a dispute over the employment rights of military veterans that involves a clash between states’ rights and Congress’s war powers.