Thursday, March 05, 2009

Rights Re-emerge : Ray of Hope

The decision by the Supreme Court on Wyeth v. Levine contained several surprising elements. It was a setback for the previous maladministration's attempts to end medical lawsuits by invocation of the 'preemption doctrine' which put state laws in abeyance when they conflict with federal law.

In the 6-3 decision, business lost one. Among those choosing to support the individual over corporate interests was an unusual presence, in Justice Clarence Thomas, hardly a shining knight for the public interest.

The Supreme Court reflects in this decision a new tone that has come back out in the country, the return of respect for individual rights and protections. This is a very promising trend.

In a major setback for business groups that had hoped to build a barrier against injury lawsuits seeking billions of dollars, the Supreme Court on Wednesday said state juries may award damages for harm from unsafe drugs even though their manufacturers had satisfied federal regulators.

The ruling could have significant implications beyond drug manufacturing. Many companies have sought tighter federal regulation in recent years in part to shield themselves from litigation.

The court, by a 6-to-3 vote, upheld a jury verdict of $6.7 million in favor of a musician from Vermont whose arm had to be amputated after she was injected with an antinausea drug. The drug’s manufacturer, Wyeth, had argued that its compliance with the Food and Drug Administration’s labeling requirements should immunize it from lawsuits.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority in Wednesday’s decision, Wyeth v. Levine, No. 06-1249, said Congress could have required pre-emption in the case but had not. “Evidently,” he said, “it determined that widely available state rights of action provided appropriate relief for injured consumers.”

Justice Stevens noted that Congress did adopt just such an express pre-emption provision for medical devices in the law at issue in the Riegel case.

Until a recent change in policy under the Bush administration, Justice Stevens wrote, the drug agency had welcomed state injury suits as a useful complement to federal regulation. But in “a dramatic change in position” in 2006, Justice Stevens said, the agency reversed that longstanding policy not withstanding its “limited resources to monitor the 11,000 drugs on the market.”

The agency’s new position, Justice Stevens wrote, “is entitled to no weight.” He was similarly dismissive of a brief supporting Wyeth filed by the Justice Department under former President George W. Bush, saying it was “undeserving of deference.”

Justice Stevens was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority but did not adopt Justice Stevens’s reasoning, saying instead that he objected generally to “far-reaching implied pre-emption doctrines” that “wander far from the statutory text.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the three dissenters, said the court had done an about-face, “turning yesterday’s dissent into today’s majority opinion” and turning ordinary injury suits into a “frontal assault on the F.D.A.’s regulatory regime for drug labeling.”

“This case illustrates,” Justice Alito said, “that tragic facts make bad law.” (Emphasis added.)

Well, isn't that special; doesn't sympathy just ooze out of the pro-business court.

As so amply illustrated by this decision, drug manufacturers have been seeking an end to medical lawsuits and to any obstacle to their free market operations and in doing so have been supported by the war criminals in the former WH.

The times are changing, indeed. The public interest had a good day in court, and is regaining respectability. Its total submersion during the last eight years has been a worldwide disaster, and this country has rediscovered that we, the people, are the object of government. When we, the people, are shut out from representation, the country is in trouble.

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Blogger Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

I remarked somewhere yesterday upon hearing the news that it seemed to me as though the departure of Cheney's scowling visage and the Chimperor's incessant howling had somehow removed a cloud over the SCROTUS, allowing at least one of them to recover some stunted, tiny shred of his humanity.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Ruth said...

Exactly. Never expected to see 'Justice' Thomas on the right side of any decision.

11:40 AM  

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