The Monitor's View

In Wal-Mart case and health care law, a presumption of guilt

The dissenting opinion in the Wal-Mart sex-discrimination ruling presumes male managers are guilty of bias. And in the health care law, an assumption of guilt about people not paying medical bills lies behind the mandate to buy insurance.

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A presumption of innocence – that a person is blameless of wrongdoing unless proven guilty – is such a bedrock of law that it is startling to see this civil right challenged in two recent court cases.

One involves the US Supreme Court ruling on Monday that blocked a class-action suit against Wal-Mart. A majority of the justices found no evidence that top management had violated company policy and discriminated against women in hiring and promotions. Yet the four justices on the losing side made a surprising presumption of collective guilt:

“Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on behalf of the minority. “The risk of discrimination is heightened when those managers are predominantly of one sex, and are steeped in a corporate culture that perpetuates gender stereotypes.”

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The notion here is that government can punish an entire class of people – in this case, all of Wal-Mart’s male managers – simply because they are “unaware” of their biases and are supposedly at risk of violating a law based on their “culture.”

And, added Justice Ginsburg, because Wal-Mart’s headquarters did not directly control local managers in their hiring and promotions, then the company could be charged with allowing “subjective” judgments against women by those managers – a sort of guilt by neglect.

To be sure, many local Wal-Mart managers have probably discriminated based on stereotypes, and those cases should be brought to court individually. But the sweep of this nationwide class-action suit went too far in presuming widespread guilt.

Curing social ills, such as sex discrimination, can’t come at the expense of denying a civil right like a presumption of innocence.

The other court case centers on the new federal health-care law and its mandate that anyone without health insurance must buy it.

The mandate is being challenged in many courts, and one case could reach the Supreme Court later this year. In a hearing earlier this month, the Obama administration told an appeals court that anyone is capable of someday using a hospital’s emergency medical services – and then refusing to pay the bill.

The government presumption is that everyone without insurance is likely to be guilty of becoming a freeloader on taxpayers. The mandate is really “about a failure to pay,” said the Acting US Solicitor General Neal Katyal.

The “failure,” of course, is only in the future – like the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” in which future crimes are prevented in the present.

And this government argument also imagines that everyone will not only go to an emergency room someday – not proven – but that most people will skip out on the bill.

This official view sees humans as inherently dishonest and makes a presumption of guilt. While individuals are entitled to hold that view, when the power of the state is behind it, then we enter an Orwellian universe in which basic rights can be defined out of existence.

Freedom in America rests on the idea that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Being held guilty from the get-go isn’t one of them.

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