By Rochelle Bobroff, Directing Attorney, Herbert Semmel Federal Rights Project, National Senior Citizens Law Center
Headlines are filled with reports of states repudiating the federal approach to hot button issues such as health reform and immigration. Clashes between federal and state law often culminate in a trip to the court house, because under the United States Constitution, state laws that conflict with federal statutes are preempted and thus invalid. Preemption law suits are as American as apple pie, and have been widely utilized for well over a hundred years by businesses and individuals on all sides of the political spectrum to enforce numerous federal laws.
Yet, a case recently accepted by the Supreme Court has the potential to restrict drastically the availability of preemption and thereby vastly increase state powers at the expense of the national government. Maxwell-Jolly v. Independent Living Center ("ILC") and consolidated cases address the preemption of a California law by the federal Medicaid statute. California is asking the Court to rule in ILC that Medicaid providers and beneficiaries do not have a cause of action for their claim that the slashing of reimbursement rates for prescription medications and other services was preempted. The Court's decision in this case could be targeted to barring court access to uphold safety-net statutes which protect the neediest and most vulnerable individuals. Nevertheless, the Court's decision could have wide-ranging implications for laws involving the environment, employment, immigration, civil rights, food and drug safety, elections and much more.
One argument advanced by California is that preemption challenges should not be permitted for statutes enacted under the Constitution's Spending Clause. These laws give states millions or even billions of dollars of federal funds in exchange for the states participating in federal programs or complying with federal rules. Medicaid is not the only Spending Clause statute. Indeed, in the seminal Spending Clause case of South Dakota v. Dole, the Court upheld the constitutionality of conditioning federal highway funds on states' adoption of the minimum drinking age of 21. Other major Spending Clause statutes include education laws, housing laws, food stamps, and civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, and disability.