by Eloise Pasachoff, Associate Professor, Georgetown University Law Center
Environmental law is safe from legal challenge under the Spending Clause’s new coercion doctrine. That’s the bottom line of Erin Ryan’s new ACS Issue Brief. Professor Ryan, an associate professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, is an expert on environmental and natural resources law and federalism. Her issue brief makes a compelling case that the federal environmental grant programs are not likely vulnerable under the new coercion doctrine that emerged two Terms ago in NFIB v. Sebelius, in which the Supreme Court largely upheld the Affordable Care Act but, significantly, struck down the Act’s expansion of Medicaid as unconstitutionally coercive under the Spending Clause.
I agree with Professor Ryan’s analysis and want to make the case that the same is true about federal education law. In fact, as the second highest source of federal support to the states after Medicaid, federal education law makes a good case study under the new coercion doctrine. If the federal education laws are likely to succumb to the doctrine’s constraints, then maybe the Court’s Medicaid decision is just the tip of the iceberg, and a lot of federal spending programs are going down. If, on the other hand, the federal education laws are not likely to be problematic under the new coercion doctrine, then conditional spending in the federal regulatory state is likely to survive relatively unscathed. My work suggests that this second story is more persuasive.
As Professor Ryan notes, the NFIB Court’s fractured opinions failed to set forth the terms of the new coercion doctrine with anything like precision, but consensus is emerging that the doctrine has essentially three parts. (For the plurality, that is; the joint dissent -- in agreement with the plurality that the Medicaid expansion was coercive -- would focus only on the last part.) First, does the condition in question threaten to take away funds for a separate and independent program, or does the condition merely govern the use of the funds? If it just governs the use of funds, then the program is not coercive.
The second question arises if the condition does threaten funds for an independent program. This question asks whether the states had sufficient notice at the time they accepted funds for the first program that they would also have to comply with the second program. If they did, then the inquiry ends once more with the conclusion that the program is not coercive.
The third question arises only if there was no such notice. This question asks whether the amount of funding at stake is so significant that the threat to withdraw it constitutes what the plurality calls “economic dragooning.” Only if this last question is reached and the answer is yes would a program be coercive.