Analysis: In shadow of landmark decisions, U.S. high court also rules for business

Fri Jun 28, 2013 1:07am EDT
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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Less noticed in a flurry of high-profile rulings on race, voting rights and gay marriage was how the U.S. Supreme Court rounded off its term by delivering a string of victories to businesses and employers.

Just this week, the court handed wins to generic drug manufacturers facing design-defect lawsuits, employers battling harassment and retaliation claims and landowners struggling to obtain permits for construction projects. In all four cases, the court was split 5-4 with the conservatives in the majority.

Overall, during the term that started nine months ago, the Supreme Court has delivered a series of victories for corporate defendants on class action lawsuits and arbitration, curbing the ability of consumers to file mass claims against companies over such matters as defective products and unfair practices. Comcast Corp CMCSA.O and American Express Co (AXP.N: Quote) were among the big winners in those cases.

As progressive groups have been quick to point out, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the main group representing business interests, received a favorable outcome in 14 of the 18 cases in which it filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

The court's business rulings represent "troubling trends that reach back a decade or more, with the court's conservative majority making it harder for consumers, workers and small businesses to go to federal court and hold large corporations accountable," said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a progressive legal group.

Kate Comerford Todd, chief counsel for appellate litigation at the Chamber's litigation arm, brushed aside suggestions that the court - led since 2005 by Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush - was overly friendly to business.

Citing a popular view within the business community, she said the court was merely reining in the plaintiffs' lawyers who can make millions of dollars in a single case representing multiple plaintiffs in suits against corporate defendants.

"We see a court that has in recent years beaten back the plaintiffs' bar's aggressive campaign to contort the rules and law to serve their purposes," she said.   Continued...

People walk in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, March 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst