June 28, 2012 United States Supreme Court opinions

United States v Alvarez

Alvarez lied about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor and pled guilty to a criminal charge. The 9th Circuit held the statute criminalizing lies about military honors was unconstitutional. In a later case, the 10th circuit upheld the statute. The Court, resolving this split, in a splintered decision, affirmed the 9th Circuit holding the statute is unconstitutional. The plurality argued that content based restrictions on speech can only be upheld if they fall into a limited number of historical exceptions to first amendment protection. Lies are not such a category and the statute is therefore unconstitutional. They rejected arguments that prohibitions on false statements to government officials, perjury or impersonation of government officials changed the analysis as each protected interests in government integrity. Even defamation, an unprotected class of speech, is protected unless recklessly done. The plurality argued that allowing government to punish lies on a given subject without the need to show a material advantage would empower the government to censor speech without limit. The plurality also argued that no link had been proved between the lie and the asserted interest in maintaining respect for military honors. The proper course was to fight the lie with truth and establish a database of honors recipients so lies can be exposed. Justices Breyer and Kagan concurred in judgment. They argued the statute’s lack of a requirement for material harm and the prospect of selective prosecution made the statute implicate first Amendment interests. Acknowledging the substantial interest in protecting those who receive military honors, they argued that the statute was not finely tuned enough to reach the most harmful lies without chilling speech. Three dissenting Justices argued the statute was narrow applying only to factual assertions within the knowledge of the speaker which are proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The problem with false claims to military honors is real and has monetary and intangible harms. They argued that precedent holds falsehoods have no intrinsic first amendment value and that there is no protected speech chilled by the act as it is not aimed at areas such as religion or other matters of public concern where it would be dangerous for the government to arbitrate truth.

National Federation of Independent Business v Sebelius

Several states and private parties challenged the individual mandate and Medicaid expansion provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act. The Justices issued three major opinions. The Justices unanimously agreed that the individual mandate was not a tax for purposes of a statute preventing prepayment challenges to federal taxes as it was labeled as penalty and many of the enforcement procedures available for taxes are not available to enforce the penalty. Seen Justices held that the expansion of Medicaid to all eligible adults was coercive as the threat to take away all Medicaid funding made it practically impossible for states to refuse given that nearly 20% of state expenditures are tied up in health care. Five Justices held the individual mandate violate the Commerce Clause as it compels unwilling participants into the market instead of regulating preexisting activity. These justices were concerned that there was no limiting principle to keep Congress from regulating all human activity including breathing. Four Justices argued that health care is a unique market in that people failing to buy health insurance will have to consume health care in the future and are cost shifting onto other participants by failing to participate. They also labeled the majority view cramped and predicted it would not last long. Five Justices determined that eh penalty provision could be rationally read to impose a tax as it had features which, for constitutional purposes, demonstrated it was aimed at raising revenue and not punishing conduct. Four justices rejected this view noting the Congress labeled the penalty a penalty and kept the provisions away from the tax part of the tax code. Five Justices agreed that the correct remedy for the Medicaid expansion violation was prohibiting the withholding of current Medicaid monies if a state decides not to expand Medicaid. Four Justices argued the Act should be struck down in its entirety as the provisions are interrelated and separation of powers dictates that Congress, not the courts, determines which provisions should be law when certain parts are unconstitutional.

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