The Health Care Debate We Should Be Having-Part One

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“We’re going to have insurance for everybody. There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us. . . . It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”

-President-elect Donald Trump, Washington Post (January 15, 2017)

Even if one supports the Affordable Care Act, there was nothing satisfying about watching the legislative circus over repeal and replacement unfold in the Senate over the past few weeks. To an outsider the entire process appeared disjointed and at times almost incoherent. It became increasingly impossible to fathom what Senate Republicans were trying to accomplish. So when the final effort, an eight-page bill apparently drafted over lunch, was rejected in a 51-49 vote, the most appropriate emotional response was neither elation nor disappointment, merely exhaustion.

Efforts to lay blame for the debacle have already begun, of course. Reince Preibus has been summarily booted from the White House and the three Republicans who defied Mitch McConnell by voting against the so-called “skinny” repeal bill have been castigated by the right. But it would be wrong to think that there isn’t a way forward. That first requires that we dispel several misconceptions. Continue reading

Lessons from State of Washington v. Trump

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“A scheme of government like ours no doubt at times feels the lack of power to act with complete, all-embracing, swiftly moving authority. No doubt a government with distributed authority, subject to be challenged in the courts of law, at least long enough to consider and adjudicate the challenge, labors under restrictions from which other governments are free. It has not been our tradition to envy such governments. In any event, our government was designed to have such restrictions.”

-Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 613 (1952)

The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this week upholding the temporary restraining order against enforcement of Executive Order 13769 produced immediate outrage in the Trump Administration. The President himself characterized the ruling as “disgraceful” and claimed that any subsequent act of terror on our shores would be laid squarely at the feet of the judiciary. Mr. Trump has been variously advised to take the matter to the Supreme Court or ignore the lower court orders entirely. In my view, the wisest option is to return to the drawing board, an idea that is apparently also under consideration.

The anger over the Ninth Circuit’s ruling is misplaced. It is neither warranted by the decision itself nor by the perceived threat to presidential power. The court did not rule on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims and its continuation of the TRO until completion of an evidentiary hearing in the trial court is not fairly predictive of the final outcome. Moreover, the Administration has not advanced any substantive argument, either in court filings or in public statements, to support the notion that temporarily maintaining current immigration policy creates serious security risks. Indeed, we are still waiting for an explanation of what the phrase “extreme vetting” even means.

Instead of railing against the decision and engaging in personal attacks against judges, the President would be well-advised to read the opinion carefully. It contains several useful lessons for the future of his presidency.

Continue reading

Mr. Mnuchin’s Mortgage Marauders

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”

-Ambrose Bierce, “The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary”

I have frequently criticized media coverage of legal issues. For example, news reports often attribute significance to orders on routine procedural motions that is wholly unwarranted. And even reporters with legal backgrounds are not clear and understandable in their explanation of court rulings to laypersons. So when I came across reports that Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin’s bank had filed a mortgage foreclosure action against a 90 year old Florida widow over 27 cents, I was skeptical.

But the story interested me because the subject of the suit resides in Polk County, only an hour’s drive from where I live. In addition, with the advent of electronic filing in court proceedings, I knew that I could access the court files online and review the actual record in the case. I have now done so and have concluded that the stories have been misleading, but not for the reasons one might expect. What has happened to Ms. Ossie Lofton of Lakeland, Florida is worse than what has been reported.

Continue reading

What RFRA Hath Wrought-Part 3

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“Smith relegated our national commitment to the free exercise of religion to the sub-basement of constitutional values.”

-Michael P. Farris and Jordan W. Lorence, “Employment Division v. Smith and the Need for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” 6 Regent U.L.Rev. 65, 66  (1995)

Several years following the ratification of the Constitution, a man named Jonas Phillips was subpoenaed to testify on behalf of a defendant in a criminal case in Pennsylvania. The problem was that the trial was scheduled for a Saturday and Mr. Phillips was a devout Jew. He refused to be sworn on the Jewish Sabbath and was subsequently held in contempt and fined ten pounds, despite invoking the protection of the Pennsylvania constitution, which provided that “no human authority can in any case whatsoever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience. . . .”  Stansbury v. Marks, 2 Dall. 213 (Pa. 1793). Fortunately, the defendant waived Mr. Phillips’ appearance and the fine was discharged.

Jonas Phillips’ “rights of conscience” were deemed subordinate to the orderly administration of the judicial system in a state which boasted one of the most religiously tolerant constitutions in the young nation. Therefore, when the Supreme Court held in 1878 that rights of conscience likewise could not be raised as a defense to a charge of bigamy, the ruling was hardly earthshattering.  Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878). And the decision over one hundred years later in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), appeared to confirm a principle that had largely guided free exercise jurisprudence since the nation’s founding: the Religion Clauses do not mandate religious exemptions from valid laws intended to be binding upon all of us. Yet the Smith decision produced a harsh political and academic reaction, resulting in legislation that has radically altered the free exercise landscape. How did that happen?

Continue reading

What RFRA Hath Wrought-Part 2

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“Those situations in which the Court may require special treatment on account of religion are, in my view, few and far between, and this view is amply supported by the course of constitutional litigation in this area.”

-Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 423 (1963) (Harlan, J., dissenting)

Were Maurice Bessinger still alive, he would undoubtedly be a strong supporter of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Had that law been available in 1964, history might well read differently.

Mr. Bessinger owned a small chain of barbecue restaurants in South Carolina known as “Piggie Park.” As a matter of company policy, African Americans were prohibited from consuming food on the premises of his restaurants and were required to place and pick up orders from the kitchen window.

When a class action was filed against Mr. Bessinger under the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among his defenses was the claim that the Act violated the First Amendment because “his religious beliefs compel him to oppose any integration of the races whatsoever.” Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 256 F. Supp. 941 (1966). The court had no sympathy for his defense. “Undoubtedly,” it said, “defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens. This court refuses to lend credence and support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that to do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs.” 256 F. Supp. at 945.

Mr. Bessinger partially prevailed at the trial court on interstate commerce grounds, but lost on appeal and was assessed attorney’s fees for his trouble, the Fourth Circuit finding that in view of a prior Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the assertion that he was not bound because the law “contravenes the will of God” and constituted interference with “the free exercise of the Defendant’s religion” was legally frivolous. Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 377 F.2d 433 (4th Cir. 1967), aff’d, 390 U.S. 400 (1968).

Had the Religious Freedom Restoration Act been in effect when Mr. Bessinger was sued, might he have prevailed? Perhaps.

Continue reading

What RFRA Hath Wrought

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“Property does become clothed with a public interest when used in a manner to make it of public consequence and affect the community at large. When, therefore, one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good, to the extent of the interest he has thus created. He may withdraw his grant by discontinuing the use, but, so long as he maintains the use, he must submit to the control.”

-Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113, 126 (1876)

The events in Indiana and Arkansas during the past week contain at least two lessons. The first is that hypocrisy is like teeth; most of us have some and exposure usually produces a nasty bite. Second, interminable debates on the topic of comparative victimology are, well, interminable. Neither lesson is useful. So perhaps it is time to take a deep breath and engage in a bit of dispassionate reflection on the scope and application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Let us begin with the oft repeated claim that a person operating a business ought to have the right to refuse service to anyone at any time for any reason (or no reason at all). Whatever merits this claim may have as a philosophical position, it has never found approval as a principle of law. The reason is that historically the common law has recognized that there are categories of commercial enterprise of sufficient importance to the general welfare to mandate their availability to all members of the public on equal terms. Continue reading

Vengeance as Policy

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

-Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The response to the grotesquely brutal murder of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh on February 3 was intense and swift. Within hours after the Islamic State released its obscene video, Jordan hanged two al-Qaeda prisoners. Thousands of Jordanian citizens marched through the streets of Amman in a demonstration joined by Queen Rania. The young pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, demanded “revenge, severe revenge for the blood of Muath.” Tribal elders, who only recently were arguing that Jordan should withdraw from the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, now called for retribution in the name of “Muath the Martyr.” By the following day, Jordanian F-16s were bombing ISIS targets in Syria.

The conservative media in this country promptly labeled King Abdullah II a hero. On Fox & Friends, Elisabeth Hasselbeck praised him for “stepping up with strong leadership and clarity, ” adding, “What is our president doing?” Even Charles Barkley weighed in, publicly expressing his wish that President Obama were more like the Jordanian king.

Please excuse me if I refrain from joining the fawning multitudes.

Continue reading