True Federalism Honors the States’ Civil Court Systems    

From the Broadway stage in “Hamilton” to Senate controversies surrounding U.S. Supreme Court nominations, the competing interests and obligations of our respective federal and state governments increasingly have become a subject of public interest and debate. Hamilton’s musical drama and the ongoing concerns surrounding judicial selection both bring to mind the concept of federalism in our Constitution.        

More than 230 years ago, forging our new system of government was a hard-fought process; a profound compromise between those who feared an overbearing, omnipotent, centralized government, and those who doubted the ability of individual states to govern themselves effectively.

In striving for consensus among his colleagues and the public, James Madison explained the concept of federalism briefly and persuasively: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

In other words, we have a system of government that works in large part because of imposed limitations on the very sort of unlimited government that Hamilton, Madison, and others had fought a revolution to escape.

Now, a colossal corporation—coping with the implications of its terrible acts—is seeking to overthrow our state’s duty and responsibility to protect its citizens through an equitable civil court system and fair judicial processes. Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is petitioning the United States Supreme Court to challenge a Missouri verdict. This verdict was reached after six weeks of trial and careful deliberation by a jury. Later, the Missouri Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the verdict, and the Missouri Supreme Court left undisturbed the evidentiary conclusions of the trial court.

In the case in question, the jury returned a thoughtful, responsible verdict against Johnson & Johnson, finding the company has for decades knowingly misled women in general and a group of ovarian cancer victims in particular about the dangers of talc use—including the known presence of cancer-causing asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products.

In an 80-page unanimous opinion, the appellate court later adjusted a portion of the jury’s collective damages award by eliminating certain claims with inadequate ties to Missouri. As to the Missouri-related claims, the court left compensatory and punitive damages entirely intact. The court concluded in writing that Johnson & Johnson acted “because of an evil motive or reckless indifference.” 

In reviewing the proceedings and judgments, the Missouri Supreme Court declined even to hear further arguments, respecting the appellate court’s judgment that Johnson & Johnson had callously disregarded the safety of consumers in pursuit of higher profits.   

Despite what the court of appeals termed “reprehensible conduct,” and with its corporate reputation and finances on the line, Johnson & Johnson has chosen to launch an assault on our state’s judicial system and attack our nation’s constitutionally protected principles of federalism.

In effect, this effort devalues the authority and questions the duty of a state to establish and follow consistent rules on such matters as jurisdiction, punitive damages, and the joining of multiple plaintiffs who have similar claims. By seeking the disruption of a state’s lawful judicial processes by the federal government, a publicly traded company seeks to overturn the will of the people and place in jeopardy much-needed financial support to citizens of Missouri.     

As governor in 1987, I signed into law the creation of Missouri’s Tort Victims Compensation Fund. This innovative statute provides that half of all punitive damages awarded at trial, after attorney’s fees are deducted, may be allocated to victims of accidents who are unable to collect adequate damages or otherwise, be compensated for their injuries, in most instances due to the inadequate insurance policies of defendants.

During the past 30 years, millions of dollars have been deposited into the fund to provide compensation to those victims, often the most disadvantaged in our society, as well as to support basic legal services for those in need.     

Through this egregious challenge, Johnson & Johnson is questioning the right of a state court jury to assess meaningful punitive damages. If successful, the challenge would take millions of dollars away from these victims as well as from other residents of our state.      

Moreover, it has been publicly reported that the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities Exchange Commission are investigating Johnson & Johnson for alleged criminal violations relating to asbestos contamination of its talcum powder. 

Our founding fathers did not envision a Congress that would wrest more and more power from state and local governments. Nor would they expect that the U.S. Supreme Court would usurp the duty and authority of state juries and judges to require corporate accountability by imposing punitive damages. Nor would they have envisioned the Supreme Court risking the perception of interference with an ongoing, executive branch investigation prior to its resolution.    

That is not what the principled intellectuals who forged our Constitution intended. These, however, are the dangers we face today.

Back to that Broadway hit, in “Non-Stop,” the final song of the first act, Hamilton questions whether Aaron Burr supports this new constitution.    

“Of course,” Burr responds.    

“Then defend it,” Hamilton replies.

Our system works best when we vigorously defend federalism and the responsibilities of all states toward their citizens. Certainly, the justices should deny federal interference in this matter. Johnson & Johnson must accept the consequences of its wrongdoing. It must simply do the right thing.

About John Ashcroft

John Ashcroft is the former governor of Missouri and served as U.S. Senator for the state from 1995 to 2001. He served as U.S. attorney general under President George W. Bush from 2001 until 2005. He acted in an "of counsel" capacity to the plaintiffs in the appellate process of Ingham et al v. Johnson & Johnson et al

Photo: Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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