The DOMA Petition You Should Be Following

By Nicole Huberfeld

You may be thinking “DOMA? Hello, this is HEALTH LAW.”  Please stick with me for a moment.  The Supreme Court appears to be collecting petitions for certiorari regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, likely to determine which circuit’s decision is the best vehicle for considering the constitutionality of this federal law.  One such petition results from the First Circuit’s decision in Massachusetts v. Department of Health and Human Services/Hara v. Office of Personnel Management, which held that section 3 of DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  The court reasoned that promoting marriage is not rationally related to denying federal benefits to same-sex couples, thereby avoiding the creation of a new category of suspect class.  The twist is that the state of Massachusetts also claims that section 3 of DOMA, which denies federal economic benefits to same-sex couples, exceeds Congress’s Spending Clause authority and infringes the state’s 10th Amendment rights.  While the First Circuit did not agree with the state on these points, it did incorporate federalism concerns into its Equal Protection Clause analysis by noting that states traditionally have defined marriage, therefore the federal government cannot protect the state of Massachusetts from its own definition of marriage by promoting heterosexual marriage. Read More

Florida’s Constitutional Amendment on Healthcare: Why It Still Matters after the Supreme Court’s Healthcare Decision

By Katie Booth

This November, Floridians will vote on whether to amend the Florida constitution “to prohibit laws or rules from compelling any person or employer to purchase, obtain, or otherwise provide for health care coverage.” Similar constitutional amendments are on the ballot in Alabama and Wyoming and have already been adopted in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Ohio. While Florida’s proposed amendment has not received much attention after the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the individual mandate requirement of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), these state constitutional amendments should not be written off entirely.

The Florida amendment could have some effect on the upcoming presidential election. Since the amendment is included on the ballot, it could help win votes for Romney and other Republican candidates by reminding undecided swing voters about the ACA as they are filling in the ballot. If the amendment passes—which requires sixty percent of the popular vote—it will almost certainly be seen as a referendum on the ACA that will give ammunition to Republicans in future elections.

The existence of these state amendments and other similar legislation also raises the stakes of future Supreme Court litigation over the ACA. While the Supreme Court may be loath to revisit the ACA anytime soon, opponents are likely to continue challenging different aspects of the ACA that have not yet been litigated. Some of these cases could eventually end up in the Supreme Court, especially if there is ambiguity around whether the ACA preempts certain aspects of state constitutional amendments.

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Missouri District Court Dismisses Challenge to Contraception Mandate

By Nadia N. Sawicki

Litigation challenging the PPACA contraception mandate continues, and last week’s decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in O’Brien v. HHS brings the total number of decisions on the merits to two (three cases – Nebraska v. Sebelius, Wheaton College v. Sebelius, and Belmont Abbey v. Sebelius – have already been dismissed for lack of standing).

Judge Carol Jackson’s opinion dismisses all the plaintiffs’ claims, but focuses primarily on the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) claim.   RFRA, which was passed by Congress in response to the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, applies a stricter standard of scrutiny to burdens on religious exercise than is constitutionally required under Smith.  A plaintiff who can demonstrate that his freedom of religious exercise is being substantially burdened by a law will prevail unless the government can prove that the law serves a compelling state interest using the least restrictive means possible.

With respect to O’Brien’s RFRA claim, the District Court concluded that requiring a corporate employer to cover contraception in its health insurance plan does not impose a substantial burden on the entity’s right to religious exercise.  Or rather, the entity’s hypothetical right to religious exercise – the District Court assumed for the sake of argument that a secular corporation can, in fact, “exercise” a religion.  The court concluded, however, that whatever burdens exist on the plaintiffs’ right of free exercise, those burdens are “too attenuated to state a claim for relief.”   Unlike other cases where plaintiffs have been able to demonstrate substantial burdens on religion, the PPACA contraception mandate would not prevent the plaintiffs in O’Brien from keeping the Sabbath, raising a family according to Scripture, eschewing contraception, or expressing an opinion to employees.  Rather, the mandate merely requires indirect financial support of a practice with which the plaintiffs disagree – no different, the court suggests, than paying a salary to an employee who, through her own free will, chooses to purchase an objectionable product.  While the court did not draw this connection directly, this reasoning is similar in kind to the reasoning used by courts in rejecting claims of conscientious objection by taxpayers.

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When Is An Emergency Not an Emergency?

By Nadia N. Sawicki

In 2010, Illinois issued an administrative rule requiring that pharmacies dispense all lawfully prescribed drugs, including emergency contraception, or face sanctions.  Last week, an Illinois appellate court in Morr-Fitz v. Quinn held that Illinois’ Conscience Act prohibits enforcement of the rule as applied to the plaintiffs, pharmacy owners with ethical convictions against distribution of emergency contraception.

The case was decided on state law grounds, and involved a rather thorough textual analysis of the Illinois Conscience Act and the administrative rule regarding pharmacies’ obligations to dispense.  The most interesting part of the court’s analysis, in my opinion, was its discussion of whether the need for emergency contraception qualifies as an emergency.

By its terms, the Illinois Conscience Act does not relieve medical providers from their legal obligations to provide “emergency medical care.”  The state defendants in this case argued that “because ‘every hour counts’ in the effectiveness of Plan B contraceptives, the provision of emergency contraceptives falls within this exception.”  The court, however, concluded that emergency medical care necessarily involves “an element of urgency and the need for immediate action,” and that a woman’s need for emergency contraception does not fall within this definition.  According to the court, unlike a ruptured appendix or surgical shock, “unprotected sex does not place a woman in imminent danger requiring an urgent response.”

What do you think?

A Slap-Down to Libertarian Thinking in Health Care

By Vickie J. Williams

On Sept. 14, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia delivered a slap-down to a case challenging Virginia’s Certificate of Public Need (COPN) law, dismissing the case on all four of the constitutional theories raised in the case.

In Colon Health Centers of America v. Hazel (Subscription required), two health care providers who wanted to offer imaging services in Virginia challenged Virginia’s COPN law, claiming it violates the Privileges or Immunities, Due Process, and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as the Dormant Commerce Clause.  The plaintiffs apparently sought to turn back the clock on judicial interpretations of these provisions at least 75 years, to the time when substantive due process reigned and the market was the unfettered king of commerce (think Lochner v. New York), and courts second-guessed legislatures on economic and social policy, The plaintiffs even acknowledged in their briefing on the motion to dismiss that their challenge under the Privileges or Immunities Clause was not in accordance with settled law, which has held since 1873 (in The Slaughter-House Cases)  that the right to earn a living unburdened by state police power legislation is not one of the privileges or immunities guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.   They simply wanted to preserve the issue for appeal.

The court, predictably and in accordance with well-settled precedent, dismissed all of these claims.  But one of the interesting things that appears in the decision is the reiteration of the standard justification for Certificate of Need (CON) programs, which currently exist in 36 states.  The court states that CON programs “correct the market” for expensive health-care services.  We generally acknowledge that there is a need to “correct the market” in health-care through the retention of CON laws in most states by the legislatures. Yet the majority of the United States Supreme Court looked upon this idea with great suspicion in the Affordable Care Act case; failing to buy the argument that the health-care and health-insurance markets were tied together (or were a single market) and that there were major distortions in the national market that could be corrected via economic legislation under the Commerce Clause.  Why the difference?  Are we heading for another era where the courts impose a particular economic view of the world on elected representatives?

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9th Circuit: Prosecution of Women Seeking Illegal Abortions Likely Unconstitutional

By Nadia N. Sawicki

In May 2011, Jennie Linn McCormack was charged with violating an Idaho law making it a felony for any woman to undergo an abortion in a manner not authorized by statute. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has recently upheld the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho’s grant of a preliminary injunction restraining enforcement of the statute under which McCormack was charged.

McCormack’s crime, according to prosecutor Mark Heideman, was that she used medication legally prescribed by a physician on the Internet to induce abortion. McCormack pursued this option because there were no abortion providers in the eight southeastern Idaho counties proximate to her home, and the cost of traveling 138 miles to a provider Salt Lake City, Utah was beyond her means.

Idaho’s abortion statute is unusual in that it expressly permits prosecution of pregnant women who pursue illegal abortions, rather than being limited to third-party abortion providers. Hiedeman contended that his prosecutorial authority under the statute was valid, arguing that the health and safety justifications for criminalizing illegal abortions are just as relevant when the responsible actor is the pregnant woman herself. The 9th Circuit disagreed. It noted that abortion laws have historically been aimed at protecting women from unqualified abortion providers, and that most statutory and common law precedents exempt women from liability for actions taken in connection with abortion. Judge Pregerson supported the validity of McCormack’s claim that prosecuting pregnant women for illegal abortion poses an undue burden on reproductive choice in that it requires women to police their providers’ compliance with abortion laws.

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Tobacco Labeling and the Ethics of Persuasion

by Nadia N. Sawicki

The D.C. Circuit’s recent decision vacating the FDA’s graphic labeling requirements has prompted a flood of valuable commentary about compelled speech doctrine, including Richard Epstein’s, below.  While analysis of the First Amendment issues is important, I view the R.J. Reynolds case instead as an example of how emphasis on formal legal arguments may detract attention from the underlying source of public opposition.

My current research focuses on the state’s use of emotionally-gripping graphic imagery in medical and public health contexts. I focus on two examples – the “fear appeal,” exemplified by the FDA’s graphic tobacco labeling requirements; and appeals to positive emotions, such as maternal bonding, exemplified by state laws requiring that women view ultrasound images and hear the heartbeat of their own fetus before consenting to an abortion.

Both types of appeals to emotion have faced constitutional challenges – as violations of First Amendment compelled speech doctrine, or imposition of undue burdens on reproductive liberty interests.   But these formalistic constitutional tests do not, in my opinion, get at the heart of the public’s concern about government persuasion using emotional imagery.  Few contemporary commentators are willing to challenge requirements for scientifically valid textual warnings. Rather, it is the use of images – diseased lungs, cadavers, fetal heartbeats – that strikes a chord of concern among many critics.  Whether designed to inspire fear, love, or disgust, the government’s use of these images to persuade seems to run counter to the principles of democratic discourse.

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