By Rochelle Bobroff, Directing Attorney, Herbert Semmel Federal Rights Project, National Senior Citizens Law Center
On October 3rd at 10 am, the Supreme Court will hear, at its very first oral argument of the new term, a case of vital importance to low-income individuals who rely on safety-net programs, such as health insurance through the federal Medicaid program. The case, Douglas v. Independent Living Center, addresses whether people with limited income and resources can sue states that enact laws which conflict with federal Medicaid requirements, the same way that businesses sue states to challenge state consumer protection laws. The Supreme Court has declined to hear the merits of the Douglas case, not taking the question of whether the slashing of Medicaid reimbursement rates by California violated federal law. The only issue before the Supreme Court is whether the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution – commonly invoked by businesses challenging state environmental or consumer protection laws – applies to the claims of poor people, including low income older adults, who were unable to obtain medication from pharmacies due to the reimbursement rates being below cost.
As in many cases that have denied disadvantaged individuals court access, the case involves a technical legal principle that doesn’t make for a great sound bite on the evening news. Specifically, the lawyers on Monday will debate whether beneficiaries of federal safety net programs, like Medicaid, are protected by the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. That fundamental provision says that the “Constitution and the laws of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land, anything in the constitutions or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” The federal courts, including the Supreme Court, routinely permit businesses to get into court to argue that state consumer and worker protections conflict with federal laws, and, hence, must be “preempted,” i.e., invalidated. And all the federal circuit courts of appeal have held that that there is no basis in the text of the Constitution or in prior case law for denying low income individuals the same access to courts as businesses.