Deep in the bowels of the attorney general’s office in Carson City is a dungeon of sorts, filled with young attorneys tasked with responding to some of the most bizarre and tedious legal claims possible. They are the inmate litigation division, and their job is to push back against the creative lawsuits of prison inmates with nothing but years of time on their hands, and in many cases a desire just to mess with their captors.
It’s a good place to get some good litigation experience, but it’s not where you’d want to spend an entire legal career. Most of the lawsuits are frivolous, as one would imagine - unappetizing food becomes cruel and unusual punishment, a snarl from a guard is proof of racial discrimination, that sort of thing. Many involve some sort of First Amendment religious claim, declaring a “sincerely held belief” in whatever that religion is that lets you do dru… er, I mean, consume sacred peyote.
The hard part is that it puts agents of the government in the position to judge whether something is really a religion or not, or whether or not another person’s professed beliefs are indeed sincere, or whether or not such-and-such rite or ceremony is really necessary for one to freely exercise his or her faith, at least as much as reasonably possible within a prison environment. If you love liberty, this is a miserable chore, and it speaks well of those young lawyers who want to escape it as their careers progress. But because order in the prisons must be maintained for everyone’s safety the law has to find a way to balance these interests, and draw lines where necessary.
But even in a setting where you by definition have had your freedom taken away by the government, there are and should be limits to that government power. Policing what are and are not “real” religious beliefs should be avoided if at all possible, such as in a recent lawsuit against the Nevada Department of Corrections by Humanists and atheists. Humanists are not religious by definition, so personally, I think their claims are theologically and logically ridiculous. But if they want to meet in the chapel when the Methodists are done to talk about being and doing “good without God,” then by all means, recognizing their groups and allowing their meeting time should be the default position. (Given the number of addicts in prison, though, I hope they still draw the line at peyote.)
Unfortunately, there are plenty of people in government who have no compunction about telling people what they can and can’t do, say, believe, buy, etc. These people are all the more odious because of their own sincere beliefs that they are restricting or controlling us for our own good, or, more sinisterly, for the “greater good.” And when they do that, it causes real harm.
Those of us who oppose government control over our health care system, for example, realize the risk these people pose, and indeed, it was a big part of the reason we knew the Affordable Care Act was such a bad idea. You were forced to pay for bloated coverage you didn’t need, and fined if you wanted to manage your own risks. Not surprisingly, this individual mandate was the least popular part of the law, and it’s good that it will soon no longer be in effect.
But other mandates are still screwing with people’s health-care choices. As I’ve learned this year, getting reasonably priced health care coverage when you’re a solo practitioner or very small business is incredibly difficult. It is a real barrier to people thinking about taking a risk and starting their own businesses for sure, and it serves to lock people into unhappy jobs - hardly a good thing for our collective souls or our economy.
Because the market is infinitely creative, small businesses found ways to cope, though, such as aggregating themselves into association health plans through local chambers of commerce or other organizations. Without such options, my family in particular would be out thousands of dollars every year, without any sort of improvement in our health coverage.
But then here come those confusing, over-controlling regulations like ants to a picnic. Here in Nevada, many of our small business owners no longer can enroll in these plans because no one knows whether or not they meet the arbitrary standards of the federal government. A federal judge has issued a ruling saying some of the plans don’t, but because of poorly written laws, it is unclear which insurance plans are violators and which aren’t.
This means that some people who would have been perfectly happy with their insurance plan now can’t have it, and worse, their entire business plans are probably tossed into limbo.
Great work, regulatory busybodies!
This lawsuit, by the way, came about because 11 other states currently controlled by Democrats sued the feds, because a) they reflexively don’t like anything President Trump does, even when he’s expanding access to health insurance, and b) don’t like the loss of control that creative market solutions often result from over-burdensome regs. In other words, Nevadans are being harmed because states on the east coast have a political axe to grind. If there is a better argument for restoring a more robust federalism to our politics, particularly in health-care policy, I can’t think of it.
Litigious prisoners can be a real pain - people with both plenty of time and an above-average contempt for authority can make for some frustrated deputy AGs. But sometimes they get results, and even when they don’t, the knowledge alone that they are so willing to sue helps to serve as a check on that part of the government.
Godless prisoners and federal health-care rules don’t at first seem to have anything in common. But what they share is the proof that the more government tries to exert control over areas of our lives which aren’t their business, the worse off we all are - no matter how well-intentioned much of that control seems to be.
In a modern political age where populists of every description are promising to restrict our choices and our freedoms for our own good (as if they could know), I only wish that the rest of us would be more protective of the liberties that we have, and more willing to fight to expand those freedoms at every opportunity.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]