Access to Justice

  • May 11, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    Say the words “judicial selection” to average Americans, and their eyes may very well glaze over.  But tell them the story of Wendy Baggett ‒ a woman whose three-day-old baby died because her doctor neglected to take her off of blood pressure medication during her pregnancy ‒ and a spark of concern may appear in those dull pupils.  Then explain that a jury sided with Baggett in her medical malpractice claim against the doctor, only to be overturned by business-backed judges on the Alabama Supreme Court, and that concern may transform into shock, curiosity and perhaps, eventually, action.

    It’s well understood that telling human stories is more effective than talking about political, economic or societal problems in the abstract.  That’s why Life of the Law, a bi-weekly podcast series, focuses on compelling, human-driven stories instead of merely analyzing legal arguments and dissecting Supreme Court rulings. 

    The story of Baggett is a true one, used to exemplify how the practice of electing judges affects people from all walks of life.  As explained in the podcast, in states where judges are forced to campaign for the bench, courts are becoming increasingly hostile to tort plaintiffs and to criminal defendants.  This makes sense; campaigns cost money, business interests have plentiful funds from which to donate, and judges, whether consciously or unconsciously, tend to side with the interests of those who helped them win their increasingly expensive elections.  (In criminal cases, judges are often attacked by their business-backed opponents for being “soft on crime” when they side with defendants, merely because it’s an easy attack.)

  • April 3, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nicole Huberfeld, H. Wendell Cherry Professor of Law, University of Kentucky

    The Supreme Court recently decided Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, a low-profile case that could strike at the heart of the Medicaid program, a federal program that provides funding to states to facilitate mainstream medical care for low-income Americans. The Medicaid Act contains requirements that states must obey to receive federal funding, one of which is called the equal access provision, or "30(A)".  This provision requires states to ensure that “payments . . . are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.” Historically, Medicaid payment rates are lower than private insurance or Medicare rates, despite the 30(A) requirement for sufficient payment.

    Additionally, the Medicaid Act does not provide explicit remedies for state failures in the program, other than authorizing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to withdraw federal funding.  Thus, over the years, health care providers and patients have brought private enforcement actions under the civil rights statute known as Section 1983 or under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution to enforce statutory rights under the Medicaid Act.  Section 1983 actions have been limited by the Supreme Court.  Consequently, health care providers and Medicaid beneficiaries turned to the Supremacy Clause, seeking injunctive relief against states under the theory that states violate federal law when they fail to pay sufficient reimbursement rates to ensure equal access.  Two years ago, the Court nearly eliminated Supremacy Clause actions in Douglas v. Independent Living Center, but deference to agency decision making ultimately stayed the Court’s hand.

    Armstrong has done what the dissent in Douglas would have.  Justice Scalia’s majority opinion pointedly began by noting that states agree to spend federal funds "in accordance with congressionally imposed conditions."  The majority asserted that the Supremacy Clause provides a "rule of construction" but does not "create a cause of action" unless Congress "permits the enforcement of its laws by private actors."  The Court then determined that Congress intentionally excluded private enforcement from the Medicaid Act, and therefore providers cannot seek injunctive relief under the Supremacy Clause.

    This conclusion is incorrect.  Congress did not "foreclose" or "exclude" private enforcement from the Medicaid Act, either in 1965 when Medicaid was enacted, or when 30(A) amended the Act.  In fact, Congress debated preventing providers and beneficiaries from seeking relief in federal court but never added such language to the Medicaid Act.  Nevertheless, the majority concluded that the Secretary of HHS is solely responsible for enforcing 30(A) pursuant to her authority under 42 U.S.C. §1396c to withhold Medicaid funds from non-compliant states.  The Secretary is reluctant to withhold funds because it could harm beneficiaries, but the majority did not engage this quandary.  Instead, the majority called 30(A) judicially unmanageable – even though lower federal courts have guided states under 30(A) for years – and held that HHS must directly engage the states without federal courts’ interference.

    The majority circled back to Medicaid's status as a spending program in Part IV of its opinion, which may resurrect a dormant theory of spending programs as being like contracts and unlike other federal laws.  The Court often analogizes federal conditional spending programs to contracts under the Pennhurst decision, but in some cases (e.g. Barnes v. Gorman), Justices have suggested that the "third party beneficiaries" of federal spending programs have no enforceable rights.  The majority opinion reiterated this view of conditional spending statutes, noting that "contracts between two governments" cannot be enforced by beneficiaries of those contracts.  Not even the historical vision of strict dual sovereignty in federalism would have claimed that the federal government and the states are co-equal sovereigns, yet this dicta seems to embrace a vision of federalism that offers much more power to the states.  The majority opened the courthouse doors to further eroding of conditional spending statutes in the context of the Medicaid Act and perhaps beyond.

  • January 27, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    The Constitutional Accountability Center recently released the fifth installment of its year-long series, “Roberts at 10,” in which Brianne Gorod details the ways Chief Justice John Roberts’ voting record has undermined the public’s access to the courts.  She points out that Roberts has consistently taken positions limiting the scope of the standing doctrine, heightening pleading requirements, restricting exceptions to state sovereign immunity and expanding arbitration.  In fact, as Gorod notes, the Chief Justice has sided with the majority in every significant decision bolstering mandatory arbitration agreements, while every case expanding access to the courts has received his emphatic dissent.

    This restricted access to the courts, and in particular the expansion of arbitration as a mandatory alternative dispute remedy, has had far-reaching negative consequences for consumers and workers.  Governed by the Federal Arbitration Act, written arbitration agreements have become a ubiquitous, lurking menace, surfacing to harm consumers again and again and again

  • January 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor of law at the University of San Francisco and founder and director of the Witness to Guantanamo project.  

    January 11 is the 13th anniversary of the opening of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nearly six years have passed since President Obama announced on his second day in office that he would shutter the detention center within one year. 127 detainees still remain at Guantanamo, 59 have been cleared for release, many for years.  Over these 13 years, Guantanamo has been a black stain on America, a stain that Obama himself has acknowledged. Because of Guantanamo, people around the world have come to question the United States’ position as world leader in human rights and the rule of law.

    Several times during his administration, Obama has said that he wanted to close Guantanamo.  Although he has blamed the Republicans for placing restrictions on his ability to release the men, he has repeatedly signed legislation passed by Congress restricting release of the detainees. He cannot blame the Republicans. He has two more years to be true to his word and close the detention center. However, perhaps something is changing.  Since Election Day, he has released 22 people.  It took him three and one-half years (from May 2011 to November 2014) for him to release another 22 detainees. 

    However, it is easier said than done. Congress has continually prohibited detainees from being brought to the U.S. Until Obama can place the men who will be prosecuted, as well as those who are considered “forever” detainees, in prisons outside Guantanamo he cannot close the prison. If he does not close the prison, it is possible that the next president will be equally stymied, and that Guantanamo will only close when the last detainee has died.

  • December 31, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Leslie Bailey, Staff Attorney, and Paul Bland, Executive Director, Public Justice. This post first appeared at the Public Justice Blog.

    USA Today has run a startling and powerful editorial that shines a bright light on a dark practice. All too often, corporations that have manufactured defective and sometimes deadly products, or are engaged in other severely illegal behavior, ask courts to cover up the wrongdoing. Through the excessive use of secrecy orders, far too many courts have sealed evidence and allowed corporations to conceal facts that – if they had become publicly known – would have stopped dangerous and illegal behavior.

    In particular, USA Today focuses on the case of Rich Barber, whom we had the privilege of successfully representing in a challenge to abusive court secrecy. Rich’s son was killed because a Remington rifle had fired without the trigger being pulled due to a design defect that Remington knew about and concealed for decades. USA Today argues that a pattern developed over a number of cases: a particular plaintiff would discover key internal documents of the gun manufacturer relating to the defect and its knowledge, and Remington would settle the cases and demand (and get) broad secrecy orders sealing up the evidence. As a result, the public didn’t learn of the defect for many years, and many more people died. 

    USA Today notes that Rich Barber’s work, and that of Public Justice, helped break down this wall of secrecy. Rich championed important legislation in Montana that now restricts courts from sealing records in cases involving public safety.

    I urge you to read USA Today’s editorial in its entirety, and to share it with others. Its editorial board put the entire problem in perspective:

    Clever use of court secrecy – confidential settlements and ‘protective orders’ to seal documents – helped keep evidence of the rifle’s potential dangers under wraps. Had court documents been public, injuries might have been prevented and lives saved.