"Lying was his habit," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion. "Xavier Alvarez ... lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when he lied in announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor, [Alvarez] ventured onto new ground; for that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005."
However, Kennedy said: "Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle."
Kennedy, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, concluded that the act violated the First Amendment's free speech guarantees.
In a concurring opinion to make up the majority, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan concluded the act, as drafted, "works disproportionate constitutional harm."
In the California case, Alvarez won a seat on the Three Valley Water District Board of Directors in 2007. "I'm a retired Marine of 25 years," Alvarez told a neighborhood district board meeting. "I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I'm still around."
The only problem, an appeals court opinion said, was that "Alvarez has never been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, nor has he spent a single day as a Marine or in the service of any other branch of the U.S. armed forces. In short, with the exception of 'I'm still around,' his self-introduction was nothing but a series of bizarre lies."
Alvarez pleaded guilty in Los Angeles -- but reserved the right to challenge the constitutionality of the act on appeal. He was sentenced to one year on probation.
A federal appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that the act was unconstitutional. The panel's ruling was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Alvarez' lie was not unique. A July 2009 article in The Marine Corps Times found 40 doctored profiles in that year's Marine Corps Association Directory -- 16 made false claims for the Medal of Honor, 16 for the Navy Cross and eight for the Silver Star.