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Benjamin: Health Debate Not Over

Justice: Legal win for Obama, but political storm awaits

June 30, 2012
By SARAH HARMON Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING - West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent D. Benjamin said the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to declare the Affordable Care Act constitutional was a "legal win" for the Obama administration, but the legislation still will face political challenges.

His remarks came during a visit to Wheeling Friday.

"Yesterday was not the end. It was the end legally, but it was not, by design, nor should it have been the end politically," Benjamin said. "It's just going to on, and people can decide whether they like it or not."

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In the light of the upcoming election, Benjamin predicted the ruling would only energize opposition to the court ruling and the current administration, causing those who are angry to go out to the polls on Election Day. He said those who are happy with the decision may not be as motivated to voice their opinions.

"It's certainly a legal victory, but the question remains who wins politically and those are two very different issues," Benjamin said. "Yesterday, what we saw was the court looking at the law. Today, what we're seeing is people looking at policy. I think that's a debate that's going to occur all the way through the election. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder to a great extent."

Benjamin said the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court remained politically neutral and were solely determining the legality of the Affordable Care Act.

"Unfortunately some people think that the judge, the role of the courts, is to fix everything. It's not. It's to be an umpire referee to say if it's a ball or a strike. Is it allowed or is it not allowed? It's not to say if it's right or wrong," he said. "Judges generally try not to get into the policy side of things, just if it's legal or it's not legal. I think you saw that in the chief justice's decision is a deference to the legislative process and to the political or policy process."

From a legal standpoint, Benjamin said some of the main issues the court ruled on included the mandate requiring people to have insurance, Medicaid and the lack of a severability clause in the statute.

Many of the states' concerns were whether they would be able to afford the required expansion of Medicaid coverage in state budgets. Benjamin said states were already having difficulty meeting their budgets for existing Medicaid costs and that the legislation would add another financial burden. According to Benjamin, the main concern was that the legislation would penalize a state for failing to expand coverage.

"What the Supreme Court said was, 'No, can't do that.' You can't penalize the state with a previous grant because the state chooses not to go along with this," Benjamin said. "That was another win for the state, because a lot of states were concerned that they would be bankrupt if they had to spend money that they just don't have, especially in this economy."

Benjamin said judges often must make decisions they do not personally support because it is their duty to uphold the Constitution.

He mentioned a less-covered ruling that occurred Thursday that determined it is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech to make it a crime to lie about earning a military decoration.

The case arose from the prosecution of Xavier Alvarez of California, who falsely claimed to have earned a Medal of Honor.

"If there's one thing we want to preserve and we have to preserve in this country, it's our First Amendment rights even when they're are difficult to deal with. There aren't very many cases on speech more difficult for us to consider than 'Does the First Amendment protect someone who lies about getting the Medal of Honor,'" Benjamin declared. "You can see how difficult sometimes it can be to be a judge because at the end of the day, you go home and you look in the mirror and you feel horrible, but on the other hand, you've got your job to do."

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