By Bob Casey
Alphonse Maddin worked as a truck driver for TransAm Trucking. Like a lot of Americans, he did the kind of hard work that puts food on the table, and pays the bills and the taxes. The work that people like Maddin do every day may not receive lots of media attention, but our economy will not function without it. Such workers do not ask for a lot in return, just to be treated fairly and with dignity under our laws.
Unfortunately, even that modest expectation has too often gone unfulfilled in recent years. The Supreme Court has increasingly come down on the side of big corporations instead of workers and middle-class families.
Maddin was directly impacted by this extreme corporate bias. On a frigid night of subzero temperatures, Maddin found himself stranded on the side of the road when the trailer on his TransAm truck froze. He called dispatch for help multiple times, but after hours of waiting in the freezing cold, he was having trouble breathing and his torso and feet were numb. Worried about his safety, he unhitched his trailer and drove the truck away. The company fired him for abandoning the trailer.
Under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, it is unlawful to fire a worker who refuses to operate a vehicle when "the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle's hazardous safety or security condition." Two different authorities within the Department of Labor ruled that Maddin's firing was illegal, yet there was one federal judge who disagreed: Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gorsuch parsed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act to argue that the driver was not protected in his decision to drive away, despite the risk of freezing to death if he stayed put. Fortunately for Maddin, the majority of the appellate court panel disagreed with Gorsuch. His colleagues on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals described Gorsuch's labored interpretation of the statute as "curious" and ruled in favor of the driver.
Workers like Maddin would be at greater risk of seeing their health and safety protections undermined if Gorsuch is elevated to the Supreme Court. He would be one of only nine justices on the highest court in the land - a court that has final say in interpreting our laws. I fear that Gorsuch will exacerbate a disturbing trend in recent Supreme Court jurisprudence. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has decided a string of 5-4 decisions in which the Republican-appointed majority votes as a block in favor of corporations, overlooking workers and families looking for a fair shake.
A major study published in the Minnesota Law Review in 2013 found that the four Republican-appointed justices currently sitting on the court, Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy, are among the six most business-friendly Supreme Court justices since 1946. A review by the Constitutional Accountability Center shows the consequences of the court's corporate tilt, finding that the Chamber of Commerce has had a success rate of 69 percent in cases before the Roberts Court, a significant increase over previous courts. These are cases of serious importance to everyday Americans, involving rules for consumer contracts, challenges to regulations ensuring fair pay and labor standards, attempts by consumers to hold companies accountable for product safety, and much more.
Based on my review of Gorsuch's opinions in cases like the one involving Maddin, I worry that he would contribute to this problem.
I take my "advice and consent" duty as a U.S. senator very seriously. I took the time to review Gorsuch's record, meet him personally, speak with legal experts, and closely study his testimony before the Judiciary Committee. Gorsuch's experience as a lawyer and judge is substantial and I see no reason to worry about his character or temperament. However, the judge's long record reveals a rigid judicial philosophy that leads him to routinely side with powerful interests and against workers and middle-class families.
Gorsuch also has a troubling trend of ruling to limit legal protections for individuals with disabilities. Take the case of an autistic child named Luke from Loveland, Colo., whose parents felt that his school district was not providing him the type of appropriate education guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Three previous rulings found in favor of Luke and his family, yet Gorsuch reversed the rulings based on the narrowest possible interpretation of the IDEA - an interpretation that just this week the Supreme Court unanimously rejected as unequal to the promise of the law.
Maddin, Luke and his family, and so many others workers, consumers, and students deserve better than to see their rights further curtailed in a system that already too often seems stacked against them. We need a Supreme Court justice who will restore fairness, balance, and independence to the highest level of the judiciary. Based on his record, I do not believe Gorsuch would be that kind of justice. I will vote against his confirmation.
Bob Casey is a Democratic U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. @senbobcasey