Court offers interesting rulings

July 4, 2012


Well, contrary to the opinion of most pundits and lawyers, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld key provisions of President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act including the individual mandate. Reports are that Chief Justice Roberts changed his vote from “nay” to “yea” at some point, to the utter rage and frustration of his conservative colleagues. At this point, the fate of the act has left the judicial sphere and entered the political one. Republicans have now sworn to overturn the act in Congress, and Democrats have sworn to keep it in place. Certainly, this will be a fascinating presidential election season.

On the same day that the court delivered its decision on health care, it also released its opinion in another case, United States v. Alvarez. This case, while it has not received anything like the attention paid to the decision on health care, is extremely important in terms of defining the scope of the First Amendment.

The defendant in Alvarez had falsely claimed to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. By so doing, he violated the Stolen Valor Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2006. The law was designed to protect the integrity of the system of medals designed to honor the heroism of military personnel. In its decision a plurality of the justices struck down the law on First Amendment grounds.

The voting of the justices was quite interesting. Six justices voted to strike down the law, but, of the six, four followed one line of reasoning and two followed another. Justice Kennedy wrote the plurality opinion for the four; Justice Breyer wrote for the two concurring; Justice Alito wrote the dissent for the three dissenters. Such a split opinion indicates how much disagreement there was among the justices. It also makes it clear that Congress can take another stab at rewriting the law to make it constitutional (assuming that the two concurring justices would join the three dissenters in voting to uphold a rewritten and slightly changed law). Justice Scalia, by the way, was, as usual, outraged by the plurality decision.

Whether one agrees with the court’s plurality opinion in Alvarez or not, the policies underlying the Stolen Valor Act are important. Given the immense contributions made by our military in many wars during the past century and the price so many military personnel and their families have paid for their service, it is of great importance to protect the few honors that the government awards to them.

People who lie about military service and, even worse, military honors, are not committing a “victimless” crime. Every present and former member of the military and all of their families are the victims of such lies. If the 2006 Stolen Valor Act went too far in its prohibition of such lying, then Congress should act swiftly to craft new legislation to replace it and, in so doing, be sure to comply with the standards set forth in the Alvarez decision. We owe it to every past and present military member.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


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