Commentators remarking on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch have widely perceived during that jurist’s short tenure thus far that he is a solidly conservative voice on the court. Gorsuch is believed to favor big business and entrenched commercial interests pursuant to a so-called “textualist” philosophy. That mindset espouses statutory interpretation without regard to underlying legal purposes or legislative history.
It is thus with surprise that many court watchers are touting a recently Gorsuch-authored case opinion as a solid victory for American workers over established business interests. One national report terms it a “remarkable win” for labor.
That decision was announced earlier this month, with Gorsuch writing on behalf of a unanimous court. The tribunal ruled in favor of an individual seeking damages against a trucking company for misclassifying him as an independent contractor.
The trucking company claimed a right under the Federal Arbitration Act to demand that the trucker settle his claim via private arbitration rather than through court-directed litigation. The plaintiff argued that an exemption in the legislation applicable to employees involved in interstate commerce allowed him to circumvent arbitration and proceed directly to court. The company countered that the FAA exclusion was inapplicable because the trucker was not an employee.
That turned out to be a faulty interpretation, following Gorsuch’s analysis guided by inspection of the FAA from the perspective of legislators who worked on its enactment back in 1925. The above-cited Slate article notes that the court referenced “contemporaneous statutes and rulings” as well as multiple dictionaries from nearly a century ago to determine how lawmakers then understood employment. They reportedly did so in a manner that included “work agreements involving independent contractors.”
The court ruled that the modern-day reading of the statute must remain the same. As a result, it held that independent contractors engaged in interstate commerce can bypass arbitration and head straight to court to address an employment-related work dispute.
Slate calls the case outcome “a considerable success for labor rights at a time when corporate interests dominate the Supreme Court.”