On the Verge of Gutting Individual Constitutional Protections?
by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET)
November 14, 2011
The glue that holds a civilized society together is the knowledge that when a victim is wronged, a legal process exists by which the wrongdoer will be held accountable and the victim thereby compensated for his injury. While not perfect, we have a legal system in America today in which fair play and justice is expected. This expectancy represents an evolution of over eight centuries. It dates back to England’s 13th century Magna Carta which mandated “the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” However, sometimes the justice expected in holding the wrongdoer accountable for the victim’s injury gets lost in the discord of lower courts raising constitutional issues independent of the underlying wrong. This leaves as final arbitrator the highest court in the land—the U.S. Supreme Court.
One such case that has run the gauntlet of discord will soon be before the US Supreme Court—Miracle Star v. State of California, Case No. 11-359. In dispute is a perfect storm of individual rights, a state government’s rights and federal rights under the US Constitution.
This case involves a plaintiff who filed a claim for injury suffered when California government representatives failed to provide claimant, Miracle Star, with rights of due process. The representatives also caused plaintiff—operating an overnight assistance program for handicapped persons, including those who are homeless—to have to shut down the operation: all for simply not having a tightly fitting trash can lid and a functioning light bulb in May 2004. California refused to renew plaintiff’s “state-approved” license, resulting in a cease and desist of operations order at that time, thus revoking Miracle Star’s license to continue service.
The defendant representatives had acted arbitrarily in doing so—thus violating a basic tenet of one’s individual rights that have been recognized over centuries. The trial court awarded plaintiff a $400,000.00 judgment. California appealed.
The Appellate Court overruled the trial court based on its reliance on applying two State cases permitting legal immunity. These cases even expanded the theory of government immunity to the breaking point, ignoring the prevailing violations of the US Constitution recognized by the lower court. The premise was, since the State was possibly immune, if argued based on these two state cases then the same lack of damages should be the result if federal damages were sought and won in the Miracle Star case.
The plaintiff brought an action in state court claiming California violated its rights, citing 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. In a nutshell, this federal statute says any government representative, whether federal or state, who deprives a citizen (which includes corporations) “of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured…” Without belaboring the specifics of the Appeal Court’s argument, the effective impact of its decision is that immunity is created for State employees inflicting injury on aggrieved victims who have been deprived of their constitutionally-protected right of due process.
In so deciding, the Appellate Court disregarded the superior law of our land based on the Supremacy Clause, which is the primary reason state courts maintain concurrent jurisdiction over such claims. But state courts, just as much as federal courts, are responsible for ensuring their officials do not run roughshod over the federal rights of any citizen. When an individual files such an action in state court, that court cannot simply decline jurisdiction over a federal claim, as is being done here, on the grounds that an act of Congress “is not in harmony with a policy of the state.” The decision by the Appeals Court in not upholding the superior law of our land is as wrong as it is dangerous.
The actual legal question that will now come before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether a state court, addressing a Section 1983 claim can prohibit the award of compensatory damages without violating the Supremacy Clause. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly admonished state courts under Section 1983 claims for changing the remedial scheme Congress has provided—and part of that remedial scheme is an entitlement to compensatory damages. Yet despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s clarity on this issue, the California Court of Appeals overturned a jury award of close to $400.000. If the Court of Appeals decision stands, the bottom line to California citizens is that they will be deprived of a state court forum to litigate abuses of their federal rights by granting immunity to state officials where none exists. This case has snuck up on the legal community, creating a back-ended immunity whenever the State decides it will not follow the U.S. Constitution. This case also raises the possibility of expanding to other states claiming similar immunity.
Led by Martin Luther King, the civil rights marches of the 1960s sought and, through legislation signed by President Lyndon Johnson, achieved to hold the US government accountable for equal rights for all. That accountability—as well as the protections won via the Magna Charta and U.S. Constitution—will be gutted if the Court of Appeals decision is not reversed, also setting a dangerous precedent in diminishing the peoples’ right to hold their government accountable.
In signing the Magna Carta and launching a new era in the rights of the individual over those of the government, King John of England had little choice. He was forced to sign the document at knife point by subordinates tired of an arbitrary rule of law where the ultimate authority lacked accountability for his actions. We have advanced as a civilized society in the centuries since then so that the judges of the US Supreme Court will not be forcibly held to sign off on a decision whether to take on the Miracle Star case and on how to judge it. It is hoped, however, eight centuries of legal theory will not be tossed out the window and the U.S. Supreme Court judges will recognize the greater rights of the people of California to hold their government accountable for any abuse of authority.