Tagged: Constitutional Law

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Viewpoint, Voting, and Structuring the Electorate

I am delighted to join the blogging community of Concurring Opinions for the month of April.  Thanks to Solangel Maldonado and Daniel Solove for their gracious invitation.

Denying voting rights to citizens with felony convictions has gotten a bad rap. The reason it’s not worse is because that rap is based on only half the story.  Anyone familiar with the complexion of our prison population knows that felon disfranchisement laws extend striking racial disparities to the electoral arena.  Less known, however, is that citizens with felony convictions are excluded from the electorate, in part, because of perceptions about how this demographic might vote or otherwise affect the marketplace of ideas.  In other words, citizens with felony convictions are denied the right to vote because of their suspected viewpoint.

Picking up on this point earlier this year, Michael Dorf highlighted a dispute between Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum about which of them held the most conservative position concerning the voting rights of citizens convicted of a felony.  Inventing a criminal persona named Snake, Dorf queried what issues might provoke such a person to vote: Lower protections for private property or public safety? Redistribution of public resources from law enforcement to education, health, or recreation?  Elimination of certain criminal laws?  I can fathom many other lawful motivations for voting.  However, as Dorf points out (and decidedly rejects), the underlying objection to allowing citizens with felony convictions to vote is based on an assumption that, if they could vote, they would express self-serving and illegitimate interests. In other words, the viewpoint that felons would express through voting has no place in the electoral process.

I have always assumed that my viewpoint was precisely what I and other voters are supposed to express at the ballot box.  Whether that viewpoint is shared, accepted, condoned or vehemently disdained and abhorred by others is irrelevant to the right to vote.  Not so for citizens with felony convictions.  This group of citizens is presumed to possess deviant views that justify their exclusion from the electorate and the denial of a fundamental right. Read More

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INSIDE THE COURT FOR TODAY’S AFFORDABLE CARE ACT ARGUMENT

I just returned from this morning’s oral argument in Department of HHS v. Florida, the challenge to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This week the Court is devoting three full days (six hours) of argument to the case, the most in half a century. The case has been a constitutional law professor’s dream because it illustrates the application of so many issues we cover in the course, including standing, the commerce power, the tax and spending powers, and theories of constitutional interpretation. I have had my first year Con Law students read the decisions below and the principal briefs before the Court and we devoted two full days of class to a roleplaying exercise where the students argued the issues.

This morning when I arrived at the Court at 7:30am there was a very lengthy line outside the Court building even for members of the Supreme Court Bar. When I saw the line I figured that I would not have a chance to get a seat in the bar section, but I at least would be able to listen to live audio of the arguments in the Lawyer’s Lounge. However, many people in the bar line were members of the press and the line shrunk quickly when they were ushered into the building. Also the Court wisely decided for today’s session to entertain no admissions for new members of the Supreme Court bar, freeing up extra seats in the bar section. I received ticket #47 and by 8:45am I was seated in the courtroom with other members of the Court’s bar. Sitting next to me was a state legislator from Maine who had flown to D.C. for the argument. She reported that when she arrived at the Court at 5:20am she was the thirteenth person in the bar line and that many of the people in front of her had been paid to wait in line for other bar members.

I was seated directly in front of the press section, which was filled to overflowing by 9:30am. Being a fly on the wall to conversations among the veteran reporters who cover the Court was interesting. One mused that he could create a stampede from the bar section simply by announcing that he was looking for experts to comment on the case. Another vowed dire consequences “if one more public relations person from a fourth-tier law school calls me to insist that I have to talk to some associate professor about this case.” Considerable chatter occurred concerning which prominent officials were in the Court (“Justice said Eric Holder will be here, but I don’t see him.”).

When the Justices took the bench at 10am, Justice Scalia announced the Credit Suisse Securities decision on the running of a statute of limitations in securities litigation. He went into great detail about the case, taking ten full minutes and causing many in the press and bar sections to roll their eyes. Chief Justice Roberts then in three minutes succinctly explained the Court’s Zivotofsky decision, holding that the constitutionality of a statute requiring the State Department to list people born in Jerusalem as having been born in Israel is not a political question.

The argument then got underway. The Court has divided the three days of argument by subject matter. The main event will be tomorrow when the Court focuses on the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the requirement that everyone purchase health insurance. This is the portion of the ACA that was struck down by the 11th Circuit as exceeding Congress’s power under the commerce clause. Today’s argument focused on whether the Anti-Injunction Act, a statute that dates from 1867, barred the Court from hearing challenges to the ACA because of its requires that taxes first be paid before their legality can be challenged in court. The only penalty the ACA provides for failing to purchase health insurance is that an extra payment must be made on one’s income tax return with the payment roughly designed to reflect what the cost of insurance would have been. Because the Solicitor General has taken the position that this payment is not covered by the Anti-Injunction Act, the Court appointed Robert A. Long, Jr. as special counsel to make that argument. Thus, today’s argument was divided into three parts.

Long argued first that the Anti-Injunction Act applied and deprived the Court of jurisdiction to hear the case until after payments for failure to buy insurance became due in 2015. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. then argued that the Anti-Injunction Act did not apply to this case, but that in cases where it did apply it should be considered to be a jurisdictional bar. Gregory G. Katsas, representing the states challenging the constitutionality of the ACA, argued that the penalty was not a tax barred by the Anti-Injunction Act and that the government had properly waived any argument to that effect.

Based on the questions from the Justices, it seems most unlikely that the Court will use the Anti-Injunction Act rationale to postpone for a few years a decision on the constitutionality of the ACA. Several Justices noted that when the constitutionality of the Social Security Act was challenged 75 years ago in Helvering v Davis, the government waived application of the Anti-Injunction Act, something it could not do if the Act were a jurisdictional bar. Solicitor General Verrilli said the Court need not decide the jurisdictional issue if it agreed that Congress did not intend to subject the ACA to the Anti-Injunction Act. Justice Kennedy brought down the house when he replied, “Don’t you want to know the answer anyway?”

Thirteen minutes into the argument all Justices but Justice Thomas had asked questions. Thomas did not ask any questions. He has not asked a question at oral argument for six years, though some have speculated that tomorrow he may do so when the focus is on the constitutionality of the individual mandate. The Justices did not tip their hands today about how they felt concerning this constitutional issue.  Justice Alito did chide the Solicitor General for arguing today that the sanction for failing to purchase insurance is not a tax, while arguing tomorrow that it is. In one exchange between Justice Kagan and the Solicitor General, Kagan kept referring to the “penalty” while Verrilli kept answering by referring to the “tax.” When the Chief Justice noted that they were using different terms, Verrilli switched to “tax penalty” as a compromise.

Tomorrow the government is making the argument that the individual mandate is constitutional as an exercise of both the commerce and the taxing powers. The tax power is implicated because the only sanction for violating the mandate is payment of a penalty on one’s income tax. Opponents of the mandate argue that it never would have been adopted by Congress if it had been advertised as a tax. However, there is precedent that even measures not specifically called “taxes” can be upheld under the taxing power in certain circumstances.

The upshot of today’s argument is that the Court is most unlikely to use the Anti-Injunction Act to duck a decision on the merits of the constitutional issues. Thus, tomorrow is the main event (Wednesday’s argument will be devoted to severability and the sleeper issue of whether the Medicaid expansion is unconstitutionally coercive of the states). I will not be attending the argument tomorrow because I have a morning class in Constitutional Law, but my class and I certainly will continue to follow this case closely.

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Landscape of the Amici Supporting Florida’s Medicaid Brief

Reporting results for its monthly Health Tracking Poll published today, the Kaiser Family Foundation introduced the summary of its findings thus:  “As the Supreme Court prepares to hear legal challenges to the health reform law in March, most Americans expect the Justices to base their ruling on their own ideological views rather than their interpretation of the law…. Other key findings include:  The public doubts the Supreme Court renders judgments based solely on the law. Three-quarters (75%) say they think that, in general, Justices let their own ideological views influence their decisions while 17 percent say they usually decide cases based on legal analysis without regard to politics and ideology….”  Notable for a term that has the potential to render a few blockbuster cases.  (The public’s opinion of the Court is worthy of its own conversation, but it’s best left for another post.) 

It is not just the general public that believes politics will win out; amici supporting the states seem to be appealing to ideology.  In reading all of the amicus briefs supporting Petitioners’ claim that the Medicaid expansion is unconstitutionally coercive, several themes reflecting this strategy emerge, such as:

  • Rejection or non-acceptance of New Deal era programs and precedents (the foundation of spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid).
  • Asking the Court to invent a coercion doctrine to limit the power to spend and/or seeking a return to U.S. v. Butler, the 1936 decision that articulated a Hamiltonian understanding of the power to spend as a separate enumerated power but that also declared the provision of the act at issue to be unconstitutional as infringing on states’ rights.  (One brief even seeks reversal of Butler’s adoption of the Hamiltonian view in favor of the Madisonian view that the power to spend only supports the other enumerated powers.)
  • Eschewing precedent – paragraphs unfold with no cites (the Texas brief is a good example).  Citations that do exist are often to concurrences, dissents, scholarship, or think-tank reports.  Justice Kennedy’s concurrences and dissents are well represented. 
  • Providing a limited picture of the Medicaid Act and the expansion by failing to account for prior mandatory modifications to the program as well as the statutory architecture of the program (which contains both mandatory and optional elements). 
  • An assertion that states cannot leave Medicaid because the federal government somehow improperly taxes state citizens, therefore states cannot tax their populations enough to pay for a state-based Medicaid equivalent. (This reflects an argument articulated by Professor Lynn Baker in her spending power articles, though it is not always attributed.) 
  • Hyperbolic analogies (such as characterizing states as drug addicts).

 A couple of additional thoughts come to mind in reading the amicus briefs:

  • State dependence on federal funding speaks to state behavior, not federal.  
  • Coercion is too nebulous and perverse to be a coherent constitutional doctrine. This is illuminated by the amicus briefs, which essentially assert that the more money the federal government offers, the less control it should be able to exercise over either the money or the states.
  • The Court has no standard by which to judge whether the federal government offers too much money to states.  Too much money relative to what?  If healthcare is expensive, then in a cooperative federalism arrangement the federal government must offer sufficient money to encourage a state to implement a program that will be costly.  The sum of money speaks to the nature of the program, but it does not dictate whether the federal government may permissibly offer the money to the states. 
  • The tax argument is a distraction that denies the existence and purpose of the 16th Amendment as well as long-standing reliance on redistributive tax policy.

Despite the Medicaid expansion being the surprise question before the Court for many observers, it may dictate the outcome of the case.  The Court could dodge the Commerce Clause question by virtue of the Anti-Injunction Act but still limit congressional authority by adopting the anti-federal spending position of the states and their amici.  An additional theme – that Medicaid is essential to the minimum coverage provision – could make it so that Medicaid is the downfall of PPACA rather than the individual mandate.  Such a result would fly in the face of severability jurisprudence; but, much about this litigation is unprecedented.

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Initial impressions of the states’ brief in Fl. v. HHS

Is the sky falling?  According to Florida et al., which filed their brief regarding PPACA’s Medicaid expansion today, the answer is a resounding yes.  In many respects, this brief rehashes the coercion arguments made in the district court and Eleventh Circuit.  The states continue to argue that they cannot afford the Medicaid expansion that will occur in 2014 (which I discussed on this blog here, here, and here), even though the federal government will pay 100% of the cost initially; and, they cannot afford not to participate in Medicaid because the costs of their medical welfare populations would be too high.  Thus, the states claim to be coerced into accepting this “onerous” new condition on federal funds.  Again, these arguments are not new. 

One aspect of the brief that was new was the inclusion of the severability arguments through describing the Medicaid expansion within the context of the universal insurance aspirations of PPACA (see especially fn. 18).   The states essentially contend that the minimum coverage requirement (“individual mandate”) gives impoverished Americans no option but to be in Medicaid, which in turn makes it so that the states cannot opt out of Medicaid.  The states further assert that this was Congress’s plan – to coerce the states by giving the poor no other options for obtaining minimum insurance coverage.  The fallacious assumptions underlying this argument are too numerous to unpack at this late hour, but at least two thoughts can start the job: first, New York v. U.S. does not require the federal government to offer alternatives to conditional spending programs (unlike, say, when it exercises commerce authority – the insurance exchanges in PPACA, which are a point of contrast in the brief, are an exercise of Commerce Clause authority, and states can either create them with some federal funding or reject them and the federal government will create the exchanges in the states that choose not to act — all of this fits neatly within the New York architecture).  Second, suffice it to say that the impoverished are not seeking private insurance alternatives to Medicaid.

Medicaid’s history is skewed by the brief more greatly than it was at lower court levels.  For example, the brief ignores the fact that Medicaid has always contained mandatory elements; these mandatory elements were one of the major defining features of the program as it was amended from Kerr-Mills, its predecessor program.  The brief also misrepresents the existence of mandatory eligibility and coverage standards and how they serve the aspirations of the program.  Likewise, the brief either misunderstands or misrepresents the minimum essential coverage requirement, which is actually more flexible for states than the mandatory coverage provisions for other Medicaid populations.  Additionally, the brief appears to misunderstand the statutory clarification that Medicaid provides both care and service (Congress here was responding to lower federal courts that had misconstrued certain language in the Medicaid Act).

Also, decisions such as Arlington, Dole, and Pennhurst that have required clear notice of conditions on spending are cited in the brief to support the states’ position that they have not voluntarily agreed to this condition on spending.  Before this point, the states have not argued that any other Dole element was violated, but the states now seem to indicate that these conditions were not unambiguous and thus the ‘contract’ with the federal government is unconstitutional.  In addition, the states offer a limiting principle that adopting their view of the coercion theory does not threaten other federal spending programs because Medicaid is by far the largest federal spending program (echoes of the federal government’s argument that nothing else is like healthcare).

Bottom line, the states want the Court to revive Butler and to expand the theory of coercion that the Court merely acknowledged in Dole and Steward Machine by relying heavily on Justice Kennedy’s concurrences and dissents that have expressed an interest in such an expansion.  The question is whether a majority of the Court is interested in a new limitation on Congress’s power to spend.

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Stanford Law Review Online: How to Reach the Constitutional Question in the Health Care Cases

Stanford Law Review

In a Note just published by the Stanford Law Review Online, Daniel J. Hemel discusses a jurisdictional issue that might delay a ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and a novel way in which the Solicitor General could bypass that hurdle. In How to Reach the Constitutional Question in the Health Care Cases, he writes:

Although the Supreme Court has agreed to hear three suits challenging the 2010 health care reform legislation, it is not at all clear that the Court will resolve the constitutional questions at stake in those cases. Rather, the Justices may decide that a Reconstruction-era statute, the Tax Anti-Injunction Act (TA-IA), requires them to defer a ruling on the merits of the constitutional challenges until 2015 at the earliest. . . . Fortunately (at least for those who favor a quick resolution to the constitutional questions at stake in the health care litigation), there is a way for the Solicitor General to bypass the TA-IA bar—even if one agrees with the interpretation of the TA-IA adopted by the Fourth Circuit and Judge Kavanaugh. Specifically, the Solicitor General can initiate an action against one or more of the fourteen states that have announced their intention to resist enforcement of the health care law, and he can bring this action directly in the Supreme Court under the Court’s original jurisdiction. Such an action would be a suit for the purpose of facilitating—not restraining—the enforcement of the health care law. Thus, it would open up an avenue to an immediate adjudication of the constitutional challenges.

Read the full Note, How to Reach the Constitutional Question in the Health Care Cases by Daniel J. Hemel, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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The inter-branch turmoil continues

After the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Douglas v. ILC, the Secretary of HHS approved some of California’s deep cuts in Medicaid reimbursement.   The Court requested additional briefing regarding the impact of the rate reduction approval, and the United States responded that the case was not moot because the grant of certiorari was based upon the Supremacy Clause question, not a determination as to the actual sufficiency of the state’s Medicaid payment rates.  As soon as the rate reductions were approved by HHS, the California Hospital Association, the California Medical Association, and other Medi-Cal providers filed additional claims for injunctive relief.  

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Christina Snyder issued an injunction against California preventing the implementation of the HHS-approved rate reductions because they would cause irreparable harm to hospitals’ skilled nursing units (among other problems).  The new injunction keeps the issues in Douglas alive, whether as a matter of payment rate adequacy or as a matter of private enforcement of state violations of the Supremacy Clause.  Thus, even though HHS approved Medi-Cal rate reductions, the conflicts in Douglas have not been resolved. 

There is also a fascinating real-time separation of powers quandry in this case, which is highlighted by the injunction that was just issued.  Federal courts perceive states’ failure to abide by the mandate of the Equal Access provision, but HHS, whose job it is to ensure state compliance, turns a blind eye to state decisions that will limit access to medical care.  In the meantime, Congress does not modify the Equal Access provision to contain stronger language or a clearer private right of action, it merely relies on implied private enforcement actions (see the amicus brief of Members of Congress).  And HHS has issued paltry draft regulations to facilitate enforcement of the Equal Access provision, but the draft regulations do not guide CMS’s enforcement efforts so much as they provide some standards for states to self-report with little federal oversight.  It seems that federal courts are acting because the legislative branch either can’t or won’t, and because the executive branch either can’t or won’t ensure that this federal law is followed.  This makes the Obama Adminstration’s deference to state decisions all the stranger in Douglas, and courts’ patience with Equal Access litigation a bit more understandable.  It also helps to explain the sort of underlying tone of confusion at oral arguments.  The Court is left with the unenviable task of cutting this Gordian knot of inter-branch disfunction.

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The other healthcare case with constitutional implications

Another Medicaid case this term also involves constitutional challenges — Douglas v. Independent Living Center of Southern California That certiorari was granted is notable unto itself, as no circuit split existed, the Acting Solicitor General had recommended that the Court deny the petition, and the Court does not seem to relish hearing healthcare cases.  The conflict in Douglas is whether California violated the Medicaid Act by enacting 10% reimbursement rate reductions, but this is not the question before the Court.  The Court will consider whether the plaintiffs (a group of Medicaid providers and enrollees) may privately enforce the Medicaid Act against the state by claiming the state has violated the Supremacy Clause.  Depending upon the timing of the opinion, Douglas may give us hints as to how the Court will decide Florida v. HHS,  even though the United States has taken notably different positions in the two cases (about which I have written more here.)

Medicaid was intended to mainstream the poor into American medicine.  The Medicaid Act thus informs states that they must pay healthcare providers “sufficient[ly]” to ensure the same access to medicine for Medicaid enrollees as others in the geographic region enjoy.  This “Equal Access” provision is a pillar of Medicaid, and it has been a source of litigation against states that pay providers too little.  In fact, before Gonzaga, lower federal courts were in agreement that the Equal Access provision was enforceable via section 1983.  Through this litigation, the circuits developed varying methods for deciding sufficiency of payment, as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has not enforced the Equal Access provision vigorously against the states.  Despite the lack of agency action, “sufficiency” is key to Medicaid’s success; if states do not pay enough for the medical services they buy, Medicaid enrollees will be forced into substandard care or will not be able to find caregivers at all, and the program would be undermined.  Due to Gonzaga, and because CMS infamously does not monitor the states, Medicaid providers and enrollees have sought to enjoin states from violating the Medicaid Act under the Supremacy Clause.

California argued that the Medicaid Act does not include private actions, thus the plaintiffs could not seek an injunction because the statute fails to meet the “unambiguous conditions” element of the Dole test for conditional spending.  This argument speaks to clear statement advocates on the Court (such as Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas), because it claims that states do not have clear notice of Medicaid enforcement actions in federal court.  To the surprise of many, the United States’ amicus brief not only supported California but also urged that no private right of action exists for beneficiaries of federal spending programs (generally) to enforce federal standards against states.  The Acting Solicitor General’s brief thus took a much bolder position than was expected.  Remarkably, members of Congress and ex-administrators of the Department of Health and Human Services strongly disagreed with the SG’s position.  In fact, the ex-administrators, which represent both sides of the aisle, insist that CMS relies heavily on private enforcement to police the states.

Douglas may lead the Court to articulate a default rule that ends implied private rights of action under the Supremacy Clause, but Medicaid is a flawed vehicle for such a sweeping, federalism-based decision.  [More after the jump.]

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An additional thought on coercion

Recently I wrote about the coercion question posed by Florida et al. in the PPACA litigation.  I have a quick follow up thought: I wonder if those advocating a more robust read of coercion recognize that their position could backfire if the goal is broadening federalism protections.  An expanded coercion doctrine ostensibly would introduce the possibility of judicially enforcing states’ rights against the congressional power to spend.  But the states should not assume that they are the only parties that could enforce federalism principles.  Just last term in Bond v. United States, Justice Kennedy wrote that individuals can have standing to enforce the principles of the Tenth Amendment against the federal government because federalism protects not just the states but also individuals.  In Bond, the conclusion was foreseeable, as a criminal defendant should be able to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she is charged.  But the idea is muddied in a conditional spending program, wherein individual beneficiaries are often at odds with the state and contest its compliance with the federal government’s statutory conditions. 

States have sought to prevent private enforcement of conditional spending statutes, and they have been more and more successful in closing the courthouse doors.  For example, the Court has limited implied rights of action as well as actions under civil rights law 42 U.S.C. § 1983, decisions that narrow state exposure in federal court.  In fact, this type of question is before the Court now in Douglas v. ILC, which confronts private enforcement of the Medicaid Act against states via the Supremacy Clause.

If the coercion theory is expanded, then private plaintiffs could be reintroduced into the federal courts, the very thing that states have been trying to prevent.  And, individuals engaging in coercion analysis may have different goals than states.  Further, it is possible that coercion could inaugurate a new theory by which those conditions, and the ways in which they are or are not executed by states, can be challenged by private plaintiffs.  So, not only is state coercion by the federal government an inherently sticky question, but it also may not produce results that states desire.

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Stanford Law Review Online: The Drone as Privacy Catalyst

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a piece by M. Ryan Calo discussing the privacy implications of drone use within the United States. In The Drone as Privacy Catalyst, Calo argues that domestic use of drones for surveillance will go forward largely unimpeded by current privacy law, but that the “visceral jolt” caused by witnessing these drones hovering above our cities might serve as a catalyst and finally “drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.”

Calo writes:

In short, drones like those in widespread military use today will tomorrow be used by police, scientists, newspapers, hobbyists, and others here at home. And privacy law will not have much to say about it. Privacy advocates will. As with previous emerging technologies, advocates will argue that drones threaten our dwindling individual and collective privacy. But unlike the debates of recent decades, I think these arguments will gain serious traction among courts, regulators, and the general public.

Read the full article, The Drone as Privacy Catalyst by M. Ryan Calo, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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Jumping ahead to Coercion

I had intended to address Douglas next, as it is a nice gateway for discussing Florida v. HHS, but a defense of the coercion argument just published in the New England Journal of Medicine Online inspired me to address the latter first.  I will begin by discussing why I think the Court granted the petition for certiorari then turn to the Medicaid coercion question. 

The Rehnquist Court excluded the Spending Clause from its federalism revolution inasmuch as that would have meant limiting the power to spend by the Tenth Amendment.  When Chief Justice Rehnquist authored South Dakota v. Dole, the evidence is that he believed it was an easy and relatively inconsequential case.  For those sane enough not to engage in the reading of tea leaves that is deciphering the spending power, a quick review.  Dole articulates typical Rehnquist categories for evaluating the constitutionality of conditions placed on federal spending:  the spending must be for the general welfare; the conditions must be clear and unambiguous (as modified by Arlington Central School District Board of Education v. Murphy); the conditions must have a nexus with the federal spending (“germaneness”); and the conditions cannot themselves be unconstitutional.  After providing this test, Rehnquist noted that “in some circumstances the financial inducement offered by Congress might be so coercive as to pass the point at which ‘pressure turns into compulsion.'”  No theory or constitutional provision was cited, but the opinion indicated that coercion would depend on the amount of money or percentage of money withheld if the state violates the conditions.  It seems that the Court meant that coercion would be a Tenth Amendment, state sovereignty problem.  But, Dole also explicitly stated that the Tenth Amendment was not implicated in the bar on unconstitutional conditions.  So, while Dole provides the test for conditional spending, it is undertheorized and a bit self-contradictory.  Nevertheless, the Rehnquist Court reiterated that the Spending Clause is not limited by the Tenth Amendment in New York v. U.S. and held to that position in subsequent cases, disappointing many who believed spending to be the next front in judicially-enforced federalism.

The Roberts Court has given hints now as to its approach to spending as well as federalism, and members of the Court have signaled interest in revisiting both topics.  For example, Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in Comstock stated: “The limits upon the spending power have not been much discussed, but if the relevant standard is parallel to the Commerce Clause cases, then the limits and the analytic approach in those precedents should be respected.”  Justice Kennedy also addressed broader federalism concerns in that concurrence, which were given free rein in his opinion for the Court in Bond v. U.S. as well.  Likewise, Justice Alito’s opinion in Arlington was written as a spending power decision rather than a limited statutory interpretation, which I have written elsewhere resulted in a narrower clear statement rule for the second element of the Dole test.

Additionally, even though the Court seems to dislike hearing both spending and healthcare cases, it already has heard Douglas this term, so spending, federalism, and Medicaid are fresh in the justices’ minds.  And, what could be a better vehicle for considering coercion than the largest grant-in-aid program that also constitutes the second largest portion of states’ budgets?  (Education is first.)  Further, numerous lower federal courts have attempted to construe coercion, but none have struck down federal legislation under the doctrine, making the issue ripe for the Court’s consideration.

Despite the idea of coercion arising repeatedly in federalism cases over the last thirty-ish years, its contours are unknown.  At what point is the money being offered too much? And is the offer really the issue, or is the problem the amount or percent of money a state stands to lose if it does not comply with the conditions?  (Dole indicated the latter, as South Dakota was not coerced because it would lose only 5% of its federal highway funding if it refused to comply with the minimum drinking age that the federal government sought to impose.)  Can coercion only apply to an existing conditional spending program that a state could not leave because it has become dependent on the program?  Or is there some federal program that would offer so much money that no state could turn it down, even at the outset, such that the new program would be coercive?  If it is the former, then clear statement rules also need to be revisited, because they seem to assume some kind of regular restatement of the rules of the program to which a state actively agrees.  That simply does not occur in a long-standing program like Medicaid, making me think that clear statement rules are almost meaningless in that context.  Additionally, states inherently relinquish some sovereignty when they agree to the terms of a cooperative federalism program, highlighting tensions between dual sovereignty and cooperative federalism.

So, what is the upshot for the Medicaid expansion?  [more after the jump]

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