All Balls and No Strikes: The Roberts Court’s Anti-Worker Activism
12 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2020 Last revised: 9 Jun 2020
Date Written: April 1, 2019
For decades, legislatures and courts have created and preserved rights and remedies for vulnerable groups—consumers, employees, victims of mass torts, investors, and the like. Both branches have extolled the virtues of these substantive rights and the private enforcement mechanisms required to effectuate them. However, despite statements like that of Justice Roberts and others that the judiciary is not a lawmaking body—indeed, that the judicial institution should take care to exercise restraint—the Roberts Court has engaged in sweeping reform that tends to extinguish these substantive rights.
In 2012, I traced how the Roberts Court paid scant attention to the integral role private enforcement plays in various regulatory frameworks in which given substantive laws operate. By reducing or eliminating mechanisms of private enforcement, I argued, entire swaths of substantive law would go woefully under-enforced. Since that time, the Roberts Court’s civil justice and procedural jurisprudence—jurisprudence that has brought about systematic retrenchment of substantive rights—reveals that the Roberts Court is not so much inattentive to the exigencies of various regulatory frameworks. Instead, the Roberts Court jurisprudence tends to reveal an affirmative deregulatory aim.
Far from merely calling balls and strikes, and in opinions involving questions as varied as ones about class-action rule interpretation, the permissibility of collective action waivers in arbitration agreements, the ability to opt out of collective bargaining dues on First Amendment grounds, standing, and others, the Roberts Court has achieved sweeping deregulation in the past decade. As has been traced in the literature, these deregulatory effects have been particularly pronounced in the area of consumer law. Moreover, the deregulatory effects for the underlying substantive regimes have often been achieved through somewhat indirect, procedural decision-making, but those effects have been almost as significant as if the Court had simply re-written the particular rights-bearing statutes.
During October Term 2017, the Court moved beyond consumer law and ramped up its efforts to effectuate deregulation of employment law. Whatever protections workers have enjoyed throughout our nation’s history have been secured in large part through private enforcement. And to be sure, on their faces, critical workplace protection laws like Title VII and the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”)—both of which rely almost exclusively on private litigation for their effectuation—remain completely intact. However, in three critical (but less-blockbuster-than-Masterpiece Cakeshop) cases—Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Epic Systems v. Lewis, and Encino Motorcars—the Court in back-to-back 5-4 rulings stripped workers of mechanisms to pursue their rights against employers who commit wrongs in the workplace. Both history and present experience teach us that the Court’s recent opinions will help eliminate the regulatory apparatus for workplace injury, and private employers will enjoy increased ability to essentially rewrite their obligations under substantive law through procedural vehicles.
This essay proceeds as follows: Part A traces the Court’s employment law jurisprudence from October Term 2017. Part B discusses the regulatory consequences of these opinions and argues that the Court’s opinions this past term reflect political commitments that favor and disfavor certain types of claims and claimants.
Keywords: Roberts Court, supreme court of the united states, substantive law, private enforcement, deregulation, employment law
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