important week for SCOTUS, health law, administration

Nina Totenberg and others reported in NPR’s health blog Sunday that the Supreme Court is very soon to hand down its decision in the controversial case of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, it appears the decision has been scheduled to be given on Thursday. At issue are four distinct questions. The first was whether the suit, brought by 20 states against the federal government, can even be decided now by the Court since an 1867 law regarding taxes might be prohibitive. It appears to be the case that the justices feel that they can. The second, and most interesting to me and it seems most other people, is whether the so-called “individual mandate” provision to purchase health insurance or be assessed a fine is allowed by Congress’s broad powers to regulate interstate commerce. The third concerns whether a vast expansion of Medicaid mandated by the law is impermissably coercive on the states, who bear the responsibility of that program’s administration. Finally, the fourth is the resulting question of severability: if any part of the law should be found to be unconstitutional, how much of the rest of the law can be permitted to stand?

I wrote much earlier this year, among other things, about how this decision will be both interesting and significant. At first I thought I would wait until the ruling to talk about the case in any detail, but instead I’ll now attempt to predict how the Court will rule on this question and analyze a few other significant rulings handed down this week.

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fresh politicization of gay marriage

The question of whether a pair of homosexual adults ought to be able to enter a federally recognized marriage has been under debate for twenty years or so. Hawaii appears to have forced the issue in the early 90s with the interesting case of Baehr v. Miike. The Hawaii Supreme Court remanded a trial court dismissal of a suit alleging Hawaii’s ban on same-sex marriages was illegal. The Court found in 1993 that, because the ban was discriminatory based on sex, it was subject to “strict scrutiny” and hence the burden of proof that the law was sound rested with the state “by demonstrating that it furthers compelling state interests and is narrowly drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgments of constitutional rights.” This led to a remarkably childish legislative and judicial back-and-forth which culminated in the People of Hawaii enacting, by a vote greater than two thirds, a constitutional ban in 1998.

At around the same time there had also been federal wrangling over the legal status of homosexuals. Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on ending fifty years of refusing to allow gays in the military, which was derailed in part by then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, leaving us with the widely reviled Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. In 1996, Congress enacted the dubious Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which federally codified marriage as being only between a single heterosexual couple on fears that the US would be forced to recognize Hawaiian gay marriages due to the Full Faith and Credit clause in its Constitution. Many states followed suit in the intervening years; at present, 42 states ban gay marriage, 31 of them through Constitutional provision.

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Supreme Court unanimously supports arbitrary discrimination in churches

In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court today held (pdf) that churches are free to hire and fire ‘ministers’ without regard to anti-discrimination law. At issue was the case of Cheryl Perich, a teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School in a suburb of Detroit. She developed narcolepsy and began the 2004-2005 school year on medical leave. After a while, Perich announced her fitness and intent to return, but school administrators seem to have convinced the congregation that this was unlikely to be true, and it offered to pay some of her medical expenses if she would resign: pure Christian love. Perich refused and instead obtained a doctor’s note certifying her again to work by late February, but the school had already contracted another teacher to replace her and seemed intent to block her. Perich appeared on the first day she was certified to work again, but was asked to leave and told she was likely to be fired. She responded by threatening legal action under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chief Justice Roberts notes in the unanimous opinion that her termination letter was quick to follow, citing as grounds “Perich’s ‘insubordination and disruptive behavior,’ as well as the damage she had done to her ‘working relationship’ with the school by ‘threatening to take legal action.’”

Roberts writes for the Court that ever since the Civil Rights Act, there has been a ‘ministerial exception’ for employment discrimination prevention, which he defends at length (more on that shortly). Because Perich conducts religious instruction 45 minutes every day and attends a weekly religious meeting with her class; and because her title of “called” teacher means that the Lutherans believe she has been literally called by God (and the congregation) to her position and was required to take some religious instruction herself, unlike “lay” teachers the school also sometimes employs to perform many of the same religious functions when God hasn’t gotten around to calling someone; and the fact that the majority of her instruction is in a wide variety of secular matters, owing to her four-year run as a kindergarten teacher and most recent year in the fourth grade, notwithstanding; the Court decided that she is a ‘minister.’ Indeed, in a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas notes that it ought to be up to the church to decide who is and is not a minister. And in a concurring opinion written by Alito and joined by Kagan (that’s right, Alito and Kagan agreeing on a concurring opinion!), the Justices argue that the term ‘minister’ itself ought not to be used at all, since many religions don’t have such a term.

My main issue with this ruling is that it smells like melodramatic bullshit. Roberts spends pages talking about the historical rationale for and the application of the first amendment, going from implementation failings of the magna carta’s promises of popular freedom to issues about territorial governance to clashes between slave owners and abolitionists to issues of property rights. Roberts and Alito both avoid the obvious likelihood that this isn’t really about the need for religions to have the power to choose their ministers free of governmental meddling, the latter opinion expressly prohibiting an inquiry to determine whether that argument isn’t just a convenient excuse, a ‘pretext for discrimination,’ since that would require making ‘a judgment about church doctrine.’ But isn’t that really the point?

Here we have a woman who is going to be terminated first for having a medical condition and second for trying to sue over that attempt to terminate her since All Good Lutherans settle their disputes within the church. The merits of the ADA suit aren’t even addressed in this decision; the suit simply is dropped since this school teacher is actually a ‘minister’ because she prays with her class and teaches them about God 15% of the time in a church-run school. Do we really suppose the Lutherans want to fire this woman because narcolepsy is a sign of satanic possession, or because their eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt not sleep on thine job’? But Roberts waxes poetic about what an order to reinstate, or even pay damages to, the complainant would mean: “Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

But how far do we take this? Couldn’t this church fire anyone it pleases and claim immunity to accountability since it might be that doctrine supports the decision? Is there not now an incentive, under the concurring opinions, for faith-based organizations to label anyone a ‘minister’ (or corresponding title) in order to secure legal exemption for civil wrongdoing? Roberts condescendingly refutes this argument that the Court’s decision opens the door to ‘a parade of horribles,’ dispelling the spectre of church-and-hence-state-sanctioned child-molesting priests (never could happen!) by explicitly noting that criminal acts and police investigations are not granted this blanket immunity and absolute prohibition, respectively, under this ruling. But a host of noncriminal activities appear to be fair game, modern civil rights and fair employment legislation notwithstanding, under this unanimous decision; and all thanks to an amendment which sought, according at least to Roberts’s own opinion, mainly to prohibit the government from installing its own religious leaders. Is that really the only thing that makes religious groups more sacred (forgive the pun) than every other social organization recognized by law and answerable to the ADA?

Some experts are not pleased. As usual, Nina Totenberg at NPR did some excellent journalism (increasingly a rarity at the offices of her august employer) to find out what people who matter think about this:

“It’s unanimous that she counts as a minister, it’s unanimous that ministers can’t sue, it’s unanimous that it doesn’t matter that whether the church had a religious reason or not,” [University of Virginia law professor Douglas] Laycock said. “The courts can’t inquire into that. That’s the story here today.”

“When the court says you can have no inquiry into whether this religious reason is pretextual and just a cover for some kind of discrimination, that’s a big deal,” [George Washington University law professor Ira Lupu] said.

The only silver lining is that this decision might not carry much sway as a precedent. The majority opinion was clear that while Perich is a minister, the Court is not establishing a minister test with this ruling. Still, it is clear that our secular democracy still has a healthy — even unanimous — respect for faith, and common sense and civil rights be damned.

Book Review: “Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View” by Stephen Breyer

Making Our Democracy Work is the work of a left-leaning sitting Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer. Well-titled, the book is a treatise that explains the goals of the Court as set out in the Constitution and its successes and failures over the last couple centuries, as well as the means that its author believes ought to be emphasized today in order to realize a constitutional democracy based on civil rights, not simply on paper but in actual practice.  Justice Breyer suggests an arsenal of tools and focuses that he believes — convincingly — the Court can and should use to maintain a public trust in enforcing “our Constitution’s liberty-protecting limits.”

The book is just as no-nonsense as you might expect and require of a sitting high court judge: it is divided into discrete, functional parts that each build in their own way in spare but effective prose to the ultimate and multifaceted thesis.

The first part explores the historical basis for the remarkable trust and deference that the American people grant the Court, explicitly relying only on well-accepted but detailed historical accounts of a few important cases. Breyer explores in entertaining prose the first great test of the nascent Court in Marbury v. Madison; points out a miscarriage in the treatment of the Cherokees under the Jackson administration when he ignored a Court order protecting their rights; visits what is hailed as one of the worst decisions the Court ever made in Dred Scott; counters with a triumph of cooperation between the judiciary and the executive in Brown v. Board of Education and school integration in Little Rock; and concludes with an analysis of the contentious 2000 decision Bush v. Gore. The exercise was to demonstrate that ours is “a nation that has gradually come to place confidence in the Court.”

The second part is Breyer’s vision for the manner in which the Court ought to function to preserve Constitutional guarantees by maintaining the public trust while not yielding to political pressures. This is clearly easier said than done, and the proffered mechanism of emphasis on the purposes (whether determined or inferred) and the consequences (more often real than imagined) of legislation — as opposed to fealty to wording or precedent or archaic interpretation, which are acknowledged as well to have a place in crafting decisions — seems phrased specifically to convince strict constructionists like Breyer’s colleague Antonin Scalia. But it is easy to forgive the explicit emphasis on these tools given the herculean job Breyer performs in justifying their application both through specific examples and accessible abstractions. Breyer’s approach is multifaceted too, as he also explores justifications in depth for qualified deference to the specialized expertise of executive administrations, state authorities, and lower federal courts. I was struck by the breadth and restraint of Breyer’s judicial vision.

The third and final part is devoted to an exploration of the Court’s duty to protect individual rights. Between detailed and painful discussions of Court failures with WWII Japanese internment cases and recent relative successes with Terrorism cases like Hamdi and Boumediene, Breyer demonstrates how the Court has and (sometimes) uses the power to check executive excesses to guarantee constitutional liberties. Importantly, he underscores the tenuous successes of the Court in maintaining a functioning democracy by quoting Bush 43’s reaction to the Boumediene ruling: “We’ll abide by the court’s decision — that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.”

Overall, the book is an eminently readable, educational treatise unlikely to be less informative than any text book on the subjects it addresses, and it has an aggressive collection of notes. There are also a pair of appendices: the first is a collection of images relating to the cases discussed throughout the book that Breyer hopes will remind readers that they “were decided by, and the principles have a profound effect on, human beings” in order to drive home the real importance of these issues; the second is among the shortest and most effective descriptions of what it is the Supreme Court actually does that I have ever read, which is indispensable for anyone unfamiliar with or prone to needing to explain to others the function that our government’s third and ‘weakest’ branch (according to Hamilton) performs.
I fault the book for repeating certain phrases and themes a little too often, but that seems more like a failing of sloppy editors, a symptom of the desire to make the book exceedingly consumable to the layman, or perhaps a forgivable idiosyncrasy of the author; and it is my only major criticism. I recommend the book heartily, and close with the final passage from its conclusion, which summarizes its laudable purpose:
The stories this book sets forth are told from the point of view of one judge. I have drawn my own lessons from them. I hope that they lead others to study the stories and ponder their lessons about our constitutional history. Then they too will be better able to help make our democracy work. I hope so.
That is why I have written this book.
 
Published 2010, 270 pages.