Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Gray Lady Calls on Feds to Repeal Marijuana Prohibition

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a lengthy editorial, entitled “Let States Decide on Marijuana.”  Here is an excerpt:

Allowing states to make their own decisions on marijuana — just as they did with alcohol after the end of Prohibition in 1933 — requires unambiguous federal action. The most comprehensive plan to do so is a bill introduced last year by Representative Jared Polis, Democrat of Colorado, known as the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. It would eliminate marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, require a federal permit for growing and distributing it, and have it regulated (just as alcohol is now) by the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. An alternative bill, which would not be as effective, was introduced by Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, as the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. It would not remove marijuana from Schedule I but would eliminate enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act against anyone acting in compliance with a state marijuana law….

Congress is clearly not ready to pass either bill, but there are signs that sentiments are changing. A promising alliance is growing on the subject between liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans. In a surprise move in May, the House voted 219 to 189 to prohibit the Drug Enforcement Administration from prosecuting people who use medical marijuana, if a state has made it legal. It was the first time the House had voted to liberalize a marijuana law; similar measures had repeatedly failed in previous years. The measure’s fate is uncertain in the Senate….

For too long, politicians have seen the high cost — in dollars and lives locked behind bars — of their pointless war on marijuana and chosen to do nothing. But many states have had enough, and it’s time for Washington to get out of their way.

Support for marijuana prohibition is collapsing.  And now that the Gray Lady has turned, many more people will conclude that it is now okay to join the cause (or at least stop opposing the cause).

For Cato scholarship on drug policy, go here.

Another DC Handgun Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

The DC government ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Heller case, so we had to take them back to court.  We won again.  The idea that they can simply ban the exercise of a fundamental and enumerated constitutional right is absurd. If the constitutional approach of the DC government were applied to the First Amendment, they would interpret the power to regulate the time, place, and manner of its exercise to include banning all churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues in the District.  That cannot be right and the court has set them straight on that matter.

Alan Gura, our lawyer, is a hero for his work on behalf of the rule of law.  I and the other plaintiffs are grateful to him and to the Second Amendment Foundation for this resounding victory.

Read the decision here.

Podcast: The Second Amendment Wins in D.C.

Saturday afternoon, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled that D.C.’s “complete ban on the carrying of handguns in public is unconstitutional.” Alan Gura is the attorney on the case, entitled Palmer v. D.C. We talked yesterday about the ruling and how D.C. might comply.

Gura, along with Clark Neily of the Institute for Justice and Cato Institute chairman Robert A. Levy, served as co-counsel to Dick Heller in the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller. The lead plaintiff in this case is Cato Institute senior fellow Tom G. Palmer.

On his blog, here’s how Gura characterized the win:

With this decision in Palmer, the nation’s last explicit ban of the right to bear arms has bitten the dust. Obviously, the carrying of handguns for self-defense can be regulated. Exactly how is a topic of severe and serious debate, and courts should enforce constitutional limitations on such regulation should the government opt to regulate. But totally banning a right literally spelled out in the Bill of Rights isn’t going to fly.

Was the Halbig Decision Political?

Writing in the Washington Post about the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Halbig v. Burwell, E. J. Dionne Jr. bemoans 

a conservative judiciary that will use any argument it can muster to win ideological victories that elude their side in the elected branches of our government.

There are several problems with his argument. First, of course, the argument accepted by two judges on the D.C. Circuit is pretty strong: the IRS can’t rewrite a law just because because the law isn’t working out so well.

Second, it’s not so clear that it’s conservatives who couldn’t “win ideological victories … in the elected branches of our government.” Democrats in Congress and other ACA supporters wanted states to establish exchanges, so they wrote the law with subsidies for state exchanges. (See also this original paper by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, especially pp. 142ff.) But because of widespread opposition to the law, many states chose not to set up exchanges. That is, supporters of the law were unable to “win ideological victories … in the elected branches of our government,” so they turned to the unelected bureaucracy to rewrite the law, and now they want the courts to uphold their end run around the legislative process.

Third, I wonder if E. J. Dionne Jr. really wants a judiciary that rolls over for the political branches, whether legislative or executive. Does he believe that the Warren Court should not have struck down school segregation, which was clearly the will of the people’s elected representatives–and no doubt the people–in Kansas, as well as in South Carolina and Virginia, whose similar cases were combined with Brown? Does he believe that the Supreme Court was wrong to strike down Virginia’s law against interracial marriage in 1967? The Texas law outlawing sodomy in 2003? Does he regret the Supreme Court’s reining in of the Bush administration’s claimed powers in several terrorism cases? Or the court’s 2013 rulings on gay marriage?

Probably not. And that’s why we should judge judicial decisions on the basis of their adherence to the law and the Constitution, not on political grounds. Three cheers for judges who uphold the rule of law without fear or favor and without political intent.

Statement on D.C. Circuit’s Ruling In Halbig v. Burwell

In August 2011, the Internal Revenue Service proposed offering subsidies through health insurance Exchanges established by the federal government, even though the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act clearly and repeatedly provides those subsidies are available only “through an Exchange established by the State.” Due to the PPACA’s interrelated provisions, the decision to offer unauthorized subsidies in federal Exchanges also triggers unauthorized taxes against millions of individuals and employers in the 36 states that ultimately opted not to establish Exchanges. When the IRS finalized this proposal in May 2012, it cited no authority for its decision to depart from the clear language of federal law.

Jonathan Adler and I were the first to criticize this decision in August 2011, and have continued to show how it is contrary to federal law and the PPACA’s legislative history.

Today, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – known as the second-highest court in the land – ruled in Halbig v. Burwell that the Obama administration is indeed imposing taxes and spending funds through those 36 federal Exchanges without statutory authority, and indeed contrary to the plain language of the PPACA.

Simply put, the President is violating the law.

Unlike other courts who have examined Halbig and related cases, the D.C. Circuit looked at the totality of the evidence, reached the only conclusion the law and the evidence permit, and struck down the IRS rule.

The court rejected the seemingly endless string of legal arguments the administration offered in defense of its actions. Despite those arguments, the court held, “the government offers no textual basis…for concluding that a federally-established Exchange is, in fact or legal fiction, established by a state.” As a result, the PPACA “does not authorize the IRS to provide tax credits for insurance purchased on federal Exchanges” and the Obama administration’s decision to offer them anyway is not only unauthorized but “gives the individual and employer mandates…broader effect than they would have” if the IRS followed the law.

While the dissent was political, focusing on the plaintiff’s motives, the opinion of the court was authored by Judge Thomas B. Griffith, whom the Washington Post has described as “widely respected by people in both parties, and those who have worked with him elsewhere regard him as a sober lawyer with an open mind. There is considerable reason to think he would make a fine judge.” His nomination to the D.C. Circuit drew praise from prominent Democrats including Seth Waxman and David Kendall. Indeed, then-senator Barack Obama himself supported Griffith’s nomination. Griffith noted that while the court’s ruling could have a significant impact on the PPACA, “high as those stakes are, the principle of legislative supremacy that guides us is higher still.”

The D.C. Circuit applied the law that Congress enacted. Any downstream effects of Halbig are the result of the PPACA itself, not today’s ruling. If those effects are intolerable, then it is up to Congress to change the law, not the IRS. If Halbig results in people losing health-insurance subsidies, the blame lies with a president who recklessly offered millions of Americans tens of billions of dollars in subsidies he had no authority to offer, that could vanish with a single court ruling.

Government Can’t Rewrite Obamacare Text Without Legislation

The D.C. Circuit ruled today that the government isn’t Humpty Dumpty and so statutory text doesn’t mean whatever the government says it means.  The provision at issue, which grants tax credits for people to buy health insurance, only applies to people buying policies through “exchanges established by the State”–which in any sane world can’t apply to exchanges established by the federal government. The fact that the vast majority of states have declined the federal government’s offer to establish exchanges–the list grows daily as initially supportive states’ exchanges fail–and that the resulting system thus doesn’t function as Obamacare’s supporters hoped is of no moment.

The government would have the IRS and courts rewrite the law to fix its massive structural weaknesses. But neither executive-agency bureaucrats nor judges can change the text of the Affordable Care Act, after-the-fact legal rationalizing notwithstanding. Today’s ruling shows that Obamacare, a cynical political bargain that lacked popular support from day one, simply doesn’t work as conceived. It’s time to repeal this Frankenstein’s monster and instead pass market-based health care reform that lowers costs, expands choice, and increases quality-all while respecting the rule of law.

Read Cato’s brief in Halbig v. Burwell, which I previously blogged about here.

Halbig v. Burwell Winners Outnumber Losers by More than Ten to One

Today at DarwinsFool.com, I released estimates of the impact of a potential ruling for the plaintiffs in Halbig v. Burwell, one of four cases currently before federal courts claiming that the subsidies and taxes the IRS is implementing in the 36 states with health-insurance Exchanges established by the federal government are illegal. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act repeatedly says those taxes and subsidies are authorized only “through an Exchange established by the State.”

Left-leaning groups and media outlets that defend the IRS are attempting to portray a potential ruling for the Halbig plaintiffs as catastrophic, because it would put an end to the subsidies roughly 5 million individuals enrolled in federal Exchanges are currently receiving. As I explain in detail, those commenters ignore three crucial facts. One, a victory for the Halbig plaintiffs would increase no one’s premiums. It would merely stop the IRS from unlawfully shifting the cost of those overly expensive PPACA premiums from enrollees to taxpayers. Two, if federal-Exchange enrollees lose subsidies, it is because the courts will have found those subsidies are, and always were, illegal. And three, if the Halbig plaintiffs prevail, the winners in the 36 states with federal Exchanges would outnumber the losers by more than ten to one.

As I explain at Darwin’s Fool, here is what the IRS’s defenders don’t want you to know about the impact of a potential Halbig victory.

  • A Halbig victory would free more than 8.3 million individuals from the PPACA’s individual mandate. That’s how many people in those 36 states the IRS is currently subjecting to the individual-mandate tax without statutory authorization.
  • In the 36 states with federal Exchanges, a Halbig victory would free 250,000 firms and 57 million employees from the PPACA’s employer mandate. That’s how many people the IRS is unlawfully subjecting to the employer mandate.
  • The number of winners under a Halbig victory is therefore more than ten times larger than the 5 million people who would lose an illegal subsidy.
  • Those 5 million people are “losers” not because they were deprived of an illegal subsidy. Regardless of one’s position on the PPACA, we can all agree that courts should put an end to illegal government spending whenever they can. Those people are “losers” because the Obama administration recklessly induced them to purchase overly expensive Exchange coverage with the promise of billions of dollars in subsidies that it has has no authority to offer, and that could disappear with a single court ruling.

I also provide state-level estimates of the number of firms and individuals Halbig would free from these mandates. For example:

  • A Halbig victory would free nearly 1 million Floridians from the individual mandate, and more than 16,000 firms and 5.1 million Floridians from the employer mandate.
  • It would free more than 1.5 million Texans from the individual mandate, and free more than 24,000 firms and nearly 7 million Texans from the employer mandate.
  • A Halbig victory would also enable the 14 states (plus D.C.) that established Exchanges to exempt residents and employers from those mandates by switching to a federal Exchange, as well as create political and economic incentives for states to make the switch.
  • If the Halbig plaintiffs prevail, the 14 establishing states (plus D.C.) could cumulatively exempt 3.8 million residents from the individual mandate and exempt 123,000 firms and nearly 29 million residents from the employer mandate.
  • California, for example, could exempt 1.7 million residents from the individual mandate, and exempt 32,000 firms and 9.4 million workers from the employer mandate.
  • Though those states would lose Exchange subsidies if they switched to a federal Exchange, the much larger number of firms and residents who would benefit could still pressure state officials to make the switch.
  • These states could also experience economic pressure to switch to a federal Exchange, because the employer mandate (which increases the cost of doing business) will be operative in their states but not in states that opt for a federal Exchange. Establishing states could therefore lose jobs to federal-Exchange states, unless they become federal-Exchange states themselves.

Click here for state-by-state data on the impact (or potential impact) of a Halbig ruling.