Ginsburg sounds alarm on New Deal rollback

Deep in a seemingly obscure Supreme Court case on Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sounded an alarm for liberals: The New Deal may be under attack.

The conservative majority is undermining worker protections from the 1930s, Ginsburg wrote, “without even acknowledging that it unsettles more than half a century of our precedent.”

In the 5-4 ruling along familiar ideological lines, the conservative majority disallowed overtime pay for automobile service advisers at a California Mercedes-Benz dealership by broadly construing a category of exemptions in the Fair Labor Standards Act for overtime protection.

Certainly, the subject of the decision — the only one issued Monday as the court continues its notably sluggish pace — pales compared with pending cases on religion and gay rights, partisan gerrymandering, and the Trump administration travel ban.

Yet the fair labor controversy offers a lens on a likely struggle among justices over the role of federal government in American life.

Monday’s decision aligns the court majority with the Trump administration’s interest in rolling back federal regulation of business.

“By stretching the [overtime] exemption … ,” wrote Ginsburg, the 85-year-old leader of the liberal wing, the majority strips away “protection for … vulnerable workers.”

Monday’s dispute centered on the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938 during the Great Depression. Its overtime pay requirements, as Ginsburg noted, were intended to induce employers to hire more people who worked 40-hour weeks rather than to keep a workforce of fewer employees with longer hours.

At issue in the case of Encino Motorcars v. Navarro was a provision exempting certain workers from overtime protection, specifically “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements.”

The question in the appeal by a Mercedes-Benz dealership in California was whether service advisers who consult with customers about their servicing needs fell under that exemption. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that service advisers qualify for overtime pay.

Reversing that decision Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas declared for the majority that service advisers, based on ordinary meanings, are “salesmen … primarily engaged in … servicing automobiles.”

He was joined by fellow conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.

The majority rejected the view that fair-labor exemptions should be narrowly interpreted, and it spurned a 2011 Labor Department regulation that said “salesman” did not include service adviser. (That regulation had prompted the Mercedes-Benz employees to sue for back pay.)

Ginsburg countered that service advisers neither sell nor repair automobiles. More fundamentally, she said advisers working on relatively low commission are “precisely the type of workers Congress intended the FLSA to shield ‘from the evil of overwork.'”

With “an exemption of its own creation,” she concluded, the court majority “veers away from … the FLSA’s mission.”