An exhaustive account focuses on one of the most contentious court cases in U.S. history.
A federal class-action suit was filed in 1974—Wards Cove Packing Company v. Atonio—which complained that racial discrimination was pervasive in the Alaskan salmon canning industry. That suit turned out to be one of the longest running ever, spanning 27 years until a final appellate decision was issued in 2001. Debut author Fryer served as the lead counsel for Wards Cove and its partner, Bumble Bee Seafoods, for the entire duration of the litigation and recounts the various details. The principal facts themselves were never in dispute—there was a considerable number of minorities in low-paying positions, while whites largely dominated the ones that promised more impressive compensation. Thus, the case became the ring for an extended fight over how precisely to classify job discrimination and what the role of the federal government is in combating it. Once the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant in 1989, the battle shifted to the other two branches of government, providing a historical exemplar of the separation of powers at work. A significant piece of new civil rights legislation in 1991 was largely a response to that Supreme Court result: “The major impetus behind the movement to pass the legislation stemmed from unhappiness with the Supreme Court’s decision in Wards Cove dealing with the burden of proof, causation, and the defense of a reasonable business justification.” The author cites the specifics of the case with extraordinary clarity and precision. Fryer’s work is both brisk and panoramic—he explores the history of the canning industry in Alaska, examines the unfurling of civil rights legislation in the U.S., and finds a pertinent place for a minibiography of Justice John Paul Stevens, to name a small representative sample of his delightfully germane detours. The author is never shy about recording his own opinions—unavoidable given that he was not only a participant, but also a partisan in the legal war—but he always issues them with a heavy dose of humble circumspection. The legalistic technicalities will likely turn off some readers, but the book is still, in the main, a reasonably accessible one.
An outstandingly methodical commentary on the American legal system and its political components.