Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Supreme Court Considers "Obamacare"

The big news this past week has been the Supreme Court’s three day hearing on the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care bill (“Obamacare”). While the final ruling on this matter is not expected until later this summer, many are already predicting what the Court will do and how this will affect medical care for U.S. citizens.

It is thought that the more conservative judges, those on the right, are ready to rule the program unconstitutional and void the entire law. However, some hope that between now and the ruling Justices will come more “center” and approach the law in a more moderate sense.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. has already pleaded with the Justices to exercise judicial restraint, aiming his plea at Justice Kennedy, who many expect to be a key vote, perhaps siding more with his liberal colleagues even though he is often grouped with the conservative Justices. According to Verilli, “The Congress struggled with the issue of how to deal with this profound problem of 40 million people without health care for many years, and it made a judgment.” He feels it is not the place of the Supreme Court to overturn this decision, but instead it is the duty of the voters to change the plan if in fact they feel it needs changing. He has asked the Court not to become a part of this partisan battle.

Verilli’s plea is interesting, as it appears he is asking the Court to refrain acting in a manner which is inherent in their existence: to ensure that the government does not violate the constitutional rights of its citizens. It is the duty of the United States Supreme Court to hear challenges on the constitutionality of laws and determine whether they are proper or not. To ask the Court then to shirk this duty is to negate the system of checks and balances instituted to protect U.S. citizens. It does not matter how long the government has wrestled with the issue; if the law violates constitutional rights, then it should be struck down.

Verilli is correct in that this should not be a partisan issue for the Court. It is their responsibility to analyze the law and rule on its constitutionality without regard to whether it was Democrats or Republicans who instituted it. The Court needs to analyze the law and decide only one issue: is this health care law constitutional?

We all have our opinions on whether Obamacare is right or wrong for the country. This is not an expression of either my support or opposition to the law; this is merely an expression of my belief that the Supreme Court’s duty is to protect citizens from having their constitutional rights infringed upon. It is Congress’ duty to create laws that pass constitutional muster (no matter the subject matter) and the Supreme Court’s duty to keep Congress in check. This is the basis of the United States government; it has been the basis for hundreds of years and it should not change now.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pennsyvania Voter ID Law

With the 2012 election season in full swing, it seems only proper that new voter issues arise to potentially complicate the voting process. On that note, Pennsylvania enacted a new law Wednesday requiring all voters to show identification at the polls prior to voting. This is by far not a unique requirement, but it is a reminder of what types of issues such legislation can bring.

The intent of this legislation, as put forth by Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, is to protect the principle of “one person, one vote.” Pennsylvania, and other states before them, believes that voter identification requirements are needed to guard against voter fraud. “Supporters say the laws are no different from needing identification to board an airplane or obtain a library card.”

However those opposing laws such as these claim that voter identification laws serve only to prevent access to the polls, especially to the poor and minorities. Advocates against this legislation claim that requiring voter identification discriminates against those who cannot afford such identification nor have no access to locations where such identification can be obtained. “Democrats say voter identification measures are aimed at squeezing out university students and senior citizens who tend to vote for Democrats.”

In response to those opposed, Governor Corbett offers the statistic that he claims ninety-nine per cent (99%) of Pennsylvania citizens already have valid identification. He also offers that the Department of Transportation driver license centers would provide free identifications for those who cannot afford to purchase one themselves.

As said, this is by far a new issue. States have been dealing with this issue for several years, and the arguments against such legislation have changed very little. The issue of protecting against voter fraud is an important matter. The principle of “one person, one vote” is what our election system runs on, and any violation of that principle needs to be prevented. Requiring voter identification at the polls is certainly one way to protect against any such violation.

However, the question becomes whether the interest in protecting against voter fraud outweighs the potential that some voters may not be able to exercise their right to vote, another essential principle of our electoral system. Even in cases such as Pennsylvania, where they are offering to provide free identification to those who cannot afford one, many argue that this legislation places a greater and unnecessary burden on people requiring them to travel to license centers that may be in inconvenient locations or open at inconvenient times.

Perhaps the solution is to require identifications at polling places, but also allow some other type of identification system for those who do not have the required identification. While it is unlikely the state would want poll workers asking voters for their social security numbers, a system could be put in place where they only have to verify the last four digits of their social security, their birthday, address and telephone number. While no system is fool proof, at least a system such as this would add some level of protection against voter fraud.

For more on this story, click here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Judge Strikes Down Cigarette Labeling Requirements

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that new regulations regarding labeling on cigarettes were unconstitutional. According to these new regulations, originally scheduled to be implemented this year but delayed due to a preliminary injunction issued in 2011, cigarette labels were to have “images of rotting teeth, diseased lungs and other images intended to illustrate the dangers of smoking.”

According to the judge, “The government has failed to carry both its burden of demonstrating a compelling interest and its burden of demonstrating that the rule is narrowly tailored to achieve a constitutionally permissible form of compelled commercial speech." While Judge Leon agreed that educating consumers on the dangers of a product was a compelling interest, he ruled that these regulations served more to convince consumers not to purchase a product, an interest which he stated was not compelling at all.

It was also ruled that the government has other tools at its disposal to achieve the same purported goal. Other options suggested by the judge include raising cigarette taxes (assuming that higher prices will in fact discourage consumption) and factual statements on cigarette packaging (more than just the current Surgeon General Warnings).

If the labeling requirements do go into effect (the government is expected to appeal this ruling), the required images would cover the top half of the front and back of a cigarette package. These images would also be required to cover the top twenty percent of any cigarette advertising in print. In considering these requirements, Judge Leon stated that “the warning labels were too big to pass constitutional muster.”

Even as a non-smoker, these regulations certainly appear to be overreaching and simply improper. The government must respect First Amendment rights for commercial speech just as they do for individual speech. And, as is the case in regulating individual speech, the government must be wary and not overreach when regulating commercial speech. Adopting regulations that can be seen as nothing more than an attempt to scare consumers from purchasing cigarettes does not in any way fall under proper regulation of free speech.

Judge Leon is absolutely correct in that the government has other, less overreaching, ways to achieve the same goals. For years, cigarette packaging has been required to carry Surgeon General Warnings. Smokers have been exposed to education through government and non-government outlets warning them, sometimes in the graphic detail proposed by these regulations.

The government does have a responsibility to warn the public of potential side effects of drugs, drugs including tobacco. However, once this warning is provided, it is up to the consumer to make a conscious decision as to whether they wish to assume the risks. It is not the government’s duty to use scare tactics to affect the consumption of these products.

For further information, click here.