(Editor’s note: Former Monterey Park Mayor, Monty Manibog is a regular columnist offering legal tips and perspectives on high profile legal cases and events.) Dear Mr. Yip: Thank you for commenting favorably on my Point of Law column and my previous service to the city of Monterey Park.
My 3 terms as mayor and councilman were most enjoyable and rewarding in the knowledge that we were developing a better and safer community for our families and fellow citizens. And, as a lawyer of 50 years, it has always been satisfying to impart legal points and principles to others in laymen’s terms to help them better understand the law and to avoid its pitfalls.As mentioned in my previous column, we do, indeed, live under a “government of laws” which holds that every citizen from every station of life are subject to the law and no one is above it. Had President Ford not pardoned former president Richard Nixon, (which was his constitutional prerogative), Nixon would have gone to jail like his “Watergate Plumbers.” And senators, congressmen, governors and some of the rich and famous (Martha Stewart,
Leona Helmsley) have fallen into the criminal justice system and landed in jail..
Under a “government of men,” the autocrats, dictators or military juntas make and change their own laws and hold themselves above those laws. Like in old England, the King’s magistrates could issue “bills of attainder,” arrest, jail or execute anyone without valid warrants or hearings and there were no “writs of habeas corpus” to challenge such action. In time, however, the pressure for justice and change developed and so the “Magna Carta,” which established and protected individual rights and liberties - was written into law. This instrument, a precursor to our own Bill of Rights, extended universal and fundamental human rights to the people.
Our system of democracy, “by, for and of the people,” may not be perfect but it is the best in the world. You would not want to be a citizen of Libya, Oman, Bahrain, Iran or other autocratic states where fundamental human rights are non-existent.
Which brings us to your query about judges interpreting the laws differently, noting that federal judges have disagreed on the constitutionality of “Obamacare.”
I personally am of the opinion that President Obama’s healthcare plan, rammed through Congress with a Democratic majority vote, is unconstitutional because you and I, as citizens, should not be forced to buy and pay for anything we may not want. But because we are a democracy where the law prevails, and because judges are only human, they may interpret the laws differently but the final word rests with the US Supreme Court, the third co-equal branch of the federal government which provides the “checks and balances” that militate against the rise of autocratic rule.
The different lower federal courts do not have the final word and, down the road, the US Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of Obamacare.
Remember, too, that our democracy is constantly evolving and allows for correcting injustices of past decisions that may have seemed right at the time. For example, the Jim Crow laws of the 1880s required the separation of races in public places. However, the Supreme Court decisions of the 1950s and ‘60s and the Civil Rights Acts passed by Congress in 1964 made such laws invalid.
And in 1954, the US Supreme Court overruled the 1896 case of Plessey v. Ferguson which upheld the constitutionality of separate schools for blacks and whites. While the 1896 Supreme Court reached out to satisfy the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause by declaring that the requirement was met if the school facilities were “equal,” the more enlightened Supreme Court of 1954 declared that separate schools for blacks and whites, even with equal facilities, was “inherently unequal,” thus forever ending legal segregation.
Again, our democracy continues to evolve for the better as mores and attitudes change, and federal judges, who serve for life and are non-political, will follow their conscience and render their best judgments, beholden to no person or persons (government of men) who could dictate the outcome. We can be thankful that we live and breath in the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we, the people, can be heard and affect democratic change.