I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy, healthy and peaceful year 2016.
Reaching the end of 2015, I cannot stop thinking about the year that has passed. Being a native German, living in Sweden and commuting every week over the bridge to Copenhagen in Denmark – most recently with thousands of terrified refugees and border controls on the way back to Sweden – this year has left me with much astonishment and concern about the state of the European Union and our global situation. It appears to me as if the EU and other global leaders have focused far too much on tiny technicalities, while leaving the bigger issues untouched and disregarding crucial lessons of history. There are so many things that we must learn from 2015’s terrible events and alarming decisions, but also from the hope-giving agreements, incidents and initiatives. For me one of the most important take-aways is that everything is connected and that sustainable, realistic solutions not only require immediate actions. In my view, we need to think about long-term strategies both in more detail and from a bigger perspective. Due to the complexity of our most pressing problems this is a colossal task. It demands more knowledge, better communications, more collaboration and a more effective coordination of the considerable skills and different competences that are already out there.
“Sex After 50 at the Supreme Court” is the title of today’s Turkey Day column by the peerless Linda Greenhouse. She takes a saucy look at upcoming Supreme Court cases on contraception and abortion and the role of religion in motivating restrictions on reproductive rights and health.
Here’s a taste:
But here’s what’s the same: sex, women and religion.
Among the achievements of the Griswold decision was the separation, as a constitutional matter, of sex from procreation. Although the court viewed the issue through the lens of the privacy of the marital bedroom, that notion of liberty, once established, couldn’t remain confined to husband and wife — nor, eventually, to man and woman.
As we learned from the arguments and dissents in last June’s same-sex marriage decision, the separation of marriage — let along sex — from procreation remains deeply unsettling to segments of the religiously conservative population.
Gobble up the whole column here. Happy Thanksgiving!
With the Supreme Court ready to review the constitutionality of restrictions on abortion providers in Texas, new research from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project suggests that between 100,000–240,000 Texas women ages 18 to 49 have attempted to terminate a pregnancy on their own (that is, without help from a licensed medical professional). According to the authors, “the populations we found to be most familiar with abortion self-induction are among those that have been most directly affected by the closure of abortion clinics in the state.” As a result, the study predicts, “abortion self-induction will increase as clinic-based care becomes more difficult to access.”
This data reinforces that efforts to ban, restrict, or otherwise interfere with efforts to obtain legal abortion don’t stop abortion—they often push women to obtain abortion by other means that are far more dangerous.
Those consequences, as it turns out, are what led one conservative Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, to support abortion rights. Justice Powell was no right-to-privacy diehard; he infamously cast the deciding vote upholding the Georgia sodomy ban in Bowers v. Hardwick. But when it came to reproductive freedom, Justice Powell joined the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade and continued to support abortion rights while sitting on the Court.
According to Justice Powell’s biographer, an incident from earlier in his career reinforced that if women lacked access to legal abortion, the result would be unsafe, off-the-books procedures:
Today the Supreme Court granted review in seven challenges to the accommodation offered to those with religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage regulations. I won’t rehash my earlierposts about why I (and seven of eight federal appeals courts) think that these challenges, brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, are bunk. For now, a few observations about the cases and today’s cert grants:
1. These cases involve challenges to a religious accommodation, not the coverage requirement itself. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the Supreme Court said that the government couldn’t enforce the contraceptive coverage regulations against for-profit corporations with religious objections. The Court pointed to a less-restrictive alternative: the accommodation, offered to nonprofit organizations, through which the organization submits a written objection and government arranges for the objector’s insurance company or plan administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to either the objector or its employees. The plaintiffs in these cases are challenging the accommodation itself. By analogy, this is like a conscientious objector challenging the process for opting out of the draft.
2. Oddly enough, Hobby Lobby didn’t officially resolve RFRA challenges to the accommodation. You might think that since the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby pointed to the accommodation as the less-restrictive alternative, then the Court must have also made clear that the accommodation itself complied with RFRA. But the majority opinion did not do so. Instead, after pointing to the accommodation as a less-restrictive alternative, the majority said, “We do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims.”
3. And/But: Justice Kennedy, the deciding vote in Hobby Lobby, suggested more clearly that the accommodation complies with RFRA. Although he joined the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy also wrote separately and appeared to bless the accommodation. Here’s what he said:
“That accommodation equally furthers the Government’s interest but does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs.”
“Yet neither may that same [free exercise] unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling. In these cases the means to reconcile those two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation the Government has designed, identified, and used for circumstances closely parallel to those presented here.”
If Justice Kennedy holds to his view in Hobby Lobby, then the plaintiffs in these cases will probably lose.
4. Although the plaintiffs in these cases are nonprofit organizations, the result will affect employees of for-profit corporations. As instructed by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby, the government extended the accommodation to closely held for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby. But neither Hobby Lobby nor the other for-profit plaintiffs have said that they will accept the accommodation, and most of them are represented by the same organizations representing the nonprofit challengers to the accommodation. So if the Supreme Court doesn’t uphold the accommodation as applied to nonprofit organizations, employees of objecting for-profit corporations will almost certainly go entirely without contraceptive coverage as well.
5. “[Y]ou are not entitled to your own facts….” Today the Becket Fund, which represents Little Sisters of the Poor and several other plaintiffs, issued a press release entitled “High Court to decide if Government can force nuns to provide contraceptives.” This is false—full stop. Under the accommodation, contraceptives are provided by the employer’s insurance company or plan administrator; employers aren’t paying for the insurance coverage, let alone handing out the insurance coverage, let alone handing out contraceptives themselves. Whether or not you think that the accommodation resolves employers’ religious objections, it is simply not true that—as a matter of fact—objecting nuns are required “to provide contraceptives.” (This is not, I should add, the first time that the Becket Fund has made this claim in a press release.) I will be curious to see whether Becket Fund repeats this claim in its briefs to the Court.
That, I suppose, is one lesson to be learned. Another is that the King lawsuit was so obviously frivolous and nakedly political that even arch-conservative and Affordable Care Act skeptic John Roberts felt constrained to reject it.
Fresh off its unsuccessful attempt to gut the Affordable Care Act in King v. Burwell, the Cato Institute is back for more. This time, Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Supreme Court review in Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell. This is one of the many, many (many) challenges brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by nonprofit organizations to an accommodation, offered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), exempting religious nonprofits from providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. To take advantage of the accommodation, nonprofits need only provide written notice to the government of their objection and the name of their insurance provider or plan administrator. At that point, the government arranges for the nonprofit organization’s insurance company or plan administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to the nonprofit or its employees.
These RFRA challenges to the nonprofit accommodation have been rejected by all seven federal appeals courts to address them. But in this brief backing the challenge by Little Sisters, Cato asks the Supreme Court to dodge the RFRA question entirely, claiming that the case “can be resolved without further engaging in the delicate analysis required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Instead, Cato makes the following argument: (1) in light of King v. Burwell’s statements about agency deference, HHS had no authority to offer religious accommodations to its own regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act, and (2) without a religious accommodation, the contraceptive coverage requirement is unenforceable against nonprofit organizations with religious objections.
Cato seeks—in the name of religious liberty!—to prevent regulatory agencies from granting accommodations to entities with religious objections to regulations, and then argues that the absence of religious accommodation makes the underlying regulations unenforceable against religious objectors. Cato’s curious argument suffers from two serious flaws.
Commentators have been weighing in since the Supreme Court decided it would hear King v. Burwell, the case challenging the ability of millions of Americans to receive subsidies to purchase health insurance on federally operated Exchanges under the ACA. Debate swirls over whether a decision striking down these subsidies will gut the ACA or not, but at the very least a ruling in favor of the petitioners would have grave consequences for ACA the and the millions that currently receive these subsidies.
There is, however, more at stake in the King case than the ACA. If the Court takes this opportunity to cut down the ACA, it does so at the cost of the principle of separation of powers and the Supreme Court’s institutional legitimacy and credibility.
The question in King will be resolved under the Chevron framework, which provides that if a statutory provision is ambiguous, then the court must defer to the agency’s interpretation, so long as it is permissible. Reasonable, learned minds have been disagreeing on the meaning of the statutory provision. As Adrian Vermeule has pointed out, of the 9 federal judges that have reviewed this question, 6 have agreed with the government’s interpretation or concluded the statute is ambiguous, and 3 have concluded that the statute unambiguously precludes subsidies. This type of judicial disagreement is evidence itself of statutory ambiguity. Read More
In case you missed it live on Monday evening, video from the Petrie-Flom Center’s event “Gene Patenting, the Supreme Court’s Myriad Decision, and the Future of Biotechnology” (co-sponsored by the Broad Institute) is now available here.
09/27/13 UPDATE: Our intern Fatima Mirza also wrote up this summary:
At this event, a distinguished panel of law and biotechnology experts convened to discuss the landmark Supreme Court Myriad decision and its implications on the future of scientific innovation and development.
The discourse began with an introduction of the high-profile case that extended beyond simply the scientific, political, or legal spheres.
“A broad coalition of people came to file this case,” said Tania Simoncelli, former Science Advisor to the ACLU. “Everyone from clinical geneticists, genetic counselors, individual women who could not access testing, the American Medical Association, the American Association of Human Genetics, and the March of Dimes were involved.”
In order to provide context for the case, Glenn Cohen, Professor at Harvard Law School and Faculty Co-Director of the Petrie-Flom Center, offered a brief history of biotechnology and patent law. He highlighted developments from as early as 1911 when adrenaline, a naturally occurring compound, could be patented and distributed commercially based on the principle of purification. Emphasizing paradigm shifts in a rapidly advancing society, Cohen further outlined the role of the Patent and Trademark Office. “At the heart of patent law is whether we will have a pro-innovation or anti-innovation effects,” said Cohen.
“The Supreme Court has finally done what should have been done years ago — declared that genes which naturally exist in all of us cannot be patented. For years Myriad Genetics, the company that sells the genetic tests used by Angelina Jolie and thousands of other women to assess their risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, has held back the development of better tests and access for many women to testing by invoking their patent claims on key genes. Now the Supreme Court has rightly said that kind of patent is not valid.
“Patenting a naturally existing gene never made any sense. Sure, it takes work to figure out what genes do, but the rewards for that are publications, tenure, professional honors and even a Nobel Prize — not a patent. Patents should be given not for discovery, but for inventions: What genes can you change; what test kit can you build; what program can you run to screen genetic risks?
“The implications of the decision could be far broader than Myriad, whose stock price went up after the ruling. Many companies have taken out patents on genes not only those found in humans but in animals, microbes and plants. All of these are now in question — which may cause some reevaluation of the worth of some companies who have been touting their ownership of genes to Wall Street.”
In the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Auburn Regional Medical Center, the Court held that a suit against HHS by eighteen hospitals alleging intentional underpayment of Medicare reimbursements was barred by a 180-day internal agency deadline for appeals of reimbursement decisions. The rub is that the hospitals only found out about the underpayments, which allegedly occurred from 1987 to 1994, in March of 2006. These underpayments affected thousands of hospitals and added up to billions of dollars. Yet under Auburn, since the hospitals did not sue within 180 days of the underpayment (or even within an extended three-year window for “good cause”), they cannot recover. The Court in Auburn rejected the hospitals’ argument that equitable tolling should apply, finding instead that “the presumption in favor of equitable tolling does not apply to administrative appeals of the kind here at issue.”
The Auburn decision raises important questions about the ability of the federal government to intentionally underpay healthcare providers. In oral argument, the lawyer for the hospitals characterized HHS’s actions as “intentional concealment . . . [and] misconduct by the Secretary, that caused the statute of limitations time to be missed.” While there are good reasons not to disturb decades-old reimbursement decisions, it is sobering that the federal government can intentionally conceal underpayments and—if it conceals the underpayment for only 180 days—never have to reimburse the injured party. This situation presents a striking contrast “to 42 CFR § 405.1885(b)(3) (2012), which permits reopening of an intermediary’s reimbursement determination ‘at any time if it is established that such determination . . . was procured by fraud or similar fault of any party to the determination.’” In other words, HHS can reopen reimbursement decisions if a provider intentionally conceals important information, but not vice versa.