DENVER -- The Justice Department is battling to save a federal law that makes it illegal to lie about being a war hero, appealing two court rulings that the statute is an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech.
The fight could be carried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it would face an uncertain fate, legal analysts said.
"This is a Supreme Court that is friendly to parties asserting speech rights and skeptical about restrictions on those rights," said Kannon Shanmugam, a former Justice Department official.
Supporters of the law take the opposite view.
The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to falsely claim to have won a military medal, whether or not an impostor seeks financial gain.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and a federal district court in Denver have both ruled the law is unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
Last week, government lawyers in California asked the full 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling, calling it a decision of "exceptional importance." Prosecutors noted that the three-judge panel was split 2-1 with sharply differing views, and that the law is also under challenge in Colorado.
The 9th Circuit hasn't said whether it will take a second look.
In Colorado, prosecutors announced last week they would ask the 10th Circuit to overturn the district court decision. That appeal is expected to be filed in early November.
The Stolen Valor Act, which breezed through Congress in 2006, revised and toughened an existing statute that forbade anyone to wear a military medal that was not earned.
The California and Colorado cases were among the early prosecutions under the newly strengthened law.
Xavier Alvarez, a local water board official from Pomona, Calif., was indicted in 2007 after saying at a public forum that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. Alvarez apparently never served in the military.
Alvarez pleaded guilty on condition that he be allowed to appeal on First Amendment grounds. The 9th Circuit ruled in his favor in August.
His attorney, Jonathan Libby, said Friday he believes both the full 9th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court would also find the law unconstitutional
Rick Glen Strandlof, who founded a veterans group in Colorado Springs, was arrested in 2009 after claiming he was a former Marine who was wounded in Iraq and had received the Purple Heart and Silver Star. The Marine Corps said it had no record that Strandlof ever served.
A Denver federal judge threw out the case against Strandlof in July.
Strandlof's attorney, Robert Pepin, said he is optimistic about winning at the appeals court or at the Supreme Court.
"It really ends up being a very interesting argument, with solid arguments on our side and strongly articulated arguments on their side," he said.
If government lawyers can't persuade the appeals courts to revive the law, they will likely ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, said Shanmugam, who served as the Justice Department's assistant solicitor general under President George W. Bush. The solicitor general is the government's top lawyer in arguments before the Supreme Court.
"When a federal court declares a federal statute unconstitutional, the solicitor general feels a strong obligation to defend the statute, where a reasonable argument can be made," Shanmugam said.Shanmugam and others cited two 2010 Supreme Court rulings as indicators that the justices might overturn the Stolen Valor Act.