Wednesday, July 19, 2006

When to Ignore Public Support

According to reports today, a federal judge has overturned the Maryland law that "required Wal-Mart to spend 8 percent of its payroll in the state on medical benefits...or pay the difference in taxes."

From Dow Jones Market Watch:
In reversing the act, federal Judge J. Frederick Motz wrote that the law imposes "legally cognizable injury" upon the world's largest retailer because it would have required Wal-Mart to track and fund benefits for its Maryland employees in a different manner than its other U.S. employees, according to his opinion accompanying the ruling. Wal-Mart insures about 1 million people nationwide.

Motz also wrote that the law violated the "fundamental purpose" of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, that permits multi-state employers to keep national health and welfare plans, provide uniform nationwide benefits and permit uniform national administration.
Groups opposing Wal-Mart were critical of the decision, of course. That's to be expected. What I object to here was a view conveyed by one of the comments in their reaction. A statement from the group "WakeUpWalMart" varyingly attributed to Paul Blank, campaign director, and to Chris Kofinis, spokesman, includes the comment, "The District Court's decision, unfortunately, ignores legal and public support for requiring large, profitable corporations to pay their fair share for health care."

Now, "legal support" could mean a few different things. Do they mean legal precedent from earlier court cases? Do they mean the Maryland law itself? Do they mean their own group's lawyers' opinions of the validity of that law? It's unclear.

"Public support," though, seems pretty plain. And whatever position any of us may take on the desirability of laws requiring corporations to pay for their employees' health care, the group's contention that it's "unfortunate" that the judge's decision ignored public opinion is perverse and disturbing. It isn't the judge's role to be influenced by what the public supports or opposes. It is simply to adhere to the law, as passed by state legislatures or Congress, derived from judicial precedent, or laid out in the Constitution itself, and to reconcile these as necessary.

A judge deciding cases based on perceived public support would be usurping the role of the legislative branch. The effect of that is to devalue the importance of the legislative branch and, consequently, to diminish the democratic process and ultimately the power of the public to play an effective role in lawmaking. That WakeUpWalMart thinks it unfortunate not to see this occuring indicates, whatever their views on health care, they don't think much of democracy.


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