As Neil Gorsuch takes his seat on the Supreme Court, the 4-4 ideological stalemate that plagued the institution after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia has been broken, reestablishing its conservative tilt.
In an article I wrote last year on the implications of Donald Trump getting the chance to fill Scalia’s seat, I described how the conservative members of the court have long held a 5-4 majority that routinely ruled for businesses over workers.
So now that they have their majority back, what does this portend for the court and cases involving worker rights? A careful look at Gorsuch’s record demonstrates, I believe, how this will be bad news for American workers and anyone who cares about economic justice.
Religion in the workplace
As an appellate judge on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch joined the majority in June 2013 granting Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, the right to deny legally mandated contraception to its workers on religious grounds. The Supreme Court affirmed that opinion a year later.
The key context here is that limiting women’s access to birth control has been shown to increase economic inequality. Without control over the timing and size of their families, women struggle to complete their educations and advance in the workplace. In turn, this depresses their family’s income.
Yet Gorsuch and the Supreme Court majority have ranked the religious beliefs of business owners over the health care needs of workers. Indeed, in a subsequent case, Gorsuch joined a dissent that argued that asking a religious organization to simply fill out a form to opt out of the contraception requirement is too great a burden.
This issue is likely to return to the court, where Gorsuch will certainly break a 2016 impasse that sent a similar case back to lower courts for resolution. Future cases are also likely to raise more conflicts over religion in the workplace.
As Justice Ginsburg warned in her Hobby Lobby dissent:
“Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage … or according women equal pay for substantially similar work?”
Worker safety and the ‘frozen trucker’
So what about his record on worker rights? His opinion in what has become known as the “frozen trucker” case illustrates Justice Gorsuch’s lack of empathy for blue-collar workers.
In 2009, a truck driver was trapped in his cab after the brakes on his trailer froze in subzero temperatures. Before long, the driver was losing sensation in his limbs and having trouble breathing. After calling his employer and waiting for over three hours for a repair vehicle, he unhitched his truck and drove to a nearby gas station. He was fired for abandoning his haul.
The majority of the three-judge appellate court upheld the Department of Labor’s decision that the trucker’s termination violated a law permitting drivers to “refuse to operate” trucks in unsafe conditions. Gorsuch dissented, however, arguing…