The case of Sorrell v. IMS Health, which the Supreme Court decided yesterday, sharply focuses the philosophical disagreement over the role of the courts in public policy. The legal question was rather straightforward; the ethical issues are complex. Is it the Court’s duty to make bad—but constitutional— laws work, or is its duty to follow the laws, and leave it to the legislature to fix their flaws?
This was a case about incompetent lawmaking. Gladys Mensing and Julie Demahy had sued Pliva and other generic drug manufacturers in Louisiana and Minnesota over the labels for metoclopramide, the generic version of Reglan. The drug, used to treat acid reflux, had caused them to develop a neurological movement disorder called tardive dyskinesia. None of the generic drug’s manufacturers and distributors included warnings on the labels about the danger of extended use of the medication, even though the risk was known to them. Neither did the manufacturers of the brand-name drug. The problem was that the state statutes required generic drug manufacturers to included warnings about dangerous side effects, while federal regulations required generic drugs to carry the exact same label information as their brand name equivalent. Continue reading
The recent Supreme Court ruling in Berghuis v. Thompkins is another in the long line of opinions attempting to determine what the familiar words (to all you “Law and Order” fans), “You have the right to remain silent” really mean. At its core, however, it is about ethics.
The various opinions interpreting the landmark 1966 case ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, which ended the common police practice of sweating, beating and otherwise coercing confessions from criminal suspects in marathon interrogation sessions had, amazingly, never before dealt with the wrinkle presented in Thompkins. The suspect in a shooting was given the Miranda warning, but never said that he wanted his lawyer or that he refused to testify, as he had the right to do. He just sat through almost three hours of questions without saying a word, and then, near the end, uttered a one word answer, “Yes,” to the question of whether he would pray to God for forgiveness for the shooting.
This admission helped convict him at trial. Continue reading
President Obama’s State of the Union message didn’t quite set off accusations of mendacity on the scale of President Bush’s yellow cake uranium comment in 2003, and Rep. Joe Wilson didn’t yell out “You lie!” (thanks for that, Joe), but the President did make some assertions that, if not intentionally inaccurate, were recklessly misleading. The most striking one was contained in the President’s attack on the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission He said:
“With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.”
This prompted Justice Joseph Alito, sitting with his colleagues, to say quietly, to himself or to Justice Sotomayor who was next to him, “Not true, not true.” And he was right: much of the statement wasn’t accurate. (Was Alito’s mouthed protest any sort of civility breach? No. Obama couldn’t see it; it is possible nobody heard it at all. Justice Alito was not mouthing the words for lip-readers in the television audience. No ethics foul. However, Alito may want to practice his poker face in the future. Next time, he won’t be so surprised: for a President to directly criticize the Supreme Court in his address is almost as rare as a Congressman shouting “You lie!”) Continue reading