Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Next Big Obamacare Case?

Medicaid, the entitlement program for low-income Americans jointly funded by the state and federal government, represents about 25 percent of state budgets. Federal funding represents more than half (57 percent) of that amount, and that funding is now being threatened by Obamacare.

In what seems like déjà-vu all over again, Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is pursuing a lawsuit to prevent this sort of federal coercion.

Here’s the scoop: In 2009, the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered states stimulus funds if they agreed to a maintenance-of-effort (“MOE”) provision that required them to maintain Medicaid-eligibility standards at July 2008 levels through December 2010. MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program, accepted those funds and the accompanying MOE provision. In relevant part, MaineCare covered low-income individuals ages 18 to 20 in 2008 — even though Medicaid doesn’t require states to include non-pregnant, non-disabled 18- to 20-year olds — so that MOE provision required Maine to continue to do so through 2010. Then the Affordable Care Act came along and added its own MOE provision, which required states to “freeze” eligibility levels until 2019 or risk losing all federal Medicaid funding.

When the ACA took effect on March 23, 2010, Maine was still bound by the ARRA’s MOE requirements, and thus had to continue to cover 18- to 20-year olds for an additional nine years. In August 2012, however, the Maine DHHS sought to drop this coverage. The federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rejected Maine’s position regarding alleged inconsistencies between the MOE provisions.

On appeal, Maine argued that the ACA’s MOE provision is unconstitutionally coercive under the Spending Clause, that it unconstitutionally applies retroactively to ARRA MOE provisions, and that it violates Maine’s right to equal sovereignty. Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the CMS decision, so Maine now seeks Supreme Court review.

More Executive Overreach, This Time from the EPA

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday in Michigan v. EPA, asking whether it was unreasonable for the Environmental Protection Agency to ignore costs in determining the appropriateness of regulating mercury emissions from power plants. The EPA’s proposed regulations are expected to cost the coal industry a whopping $9.6 billion, but only offer a meager $500,000 to $6 million in public health benefits. 

Cato filed an amicus brief in the case that focuses on why the EPA chose to ignore costs in developing these regulations. It turns out that EPA could achieve its goal of comprehensively regulating utility emissions only if it ignores the costs. That in turn allowed the EPA to single out power plants – which it couldn’t do under other programs, and to avoid working through the states – as the other programs require. This strategy amounts to little more than a clever trick to circumvent statutory limits on the EPA’s own authority.

In effect, the EPA is exploiting nearly harmless levels of mercury emissions as a Trojan horse – an excuse to regulate all power plant emissions, even ones that are covered by other programs that deny EPA the ability to regulate in this fashion.

Chief Justice Roberts picked up on this point from our brief when he questioned the Solicitor General extensively as to the radical disparity between costs and benefits (see discussion starting p.59 here). He also asked pointed questions regarding the EPA’s attempt at making an “end run” around restrictions on the Clean Air Act.

The 4th Amendment Is Another Victim of the Drug War

Over at the Washington Post, Radley Balko details a recent Fourth Circuit ruling overturning an award for a father whose son was shot and killed in a military-style SWAT raid after marijuana residue was found in an outside garbage bag. A jury awarded the father $250,000 after it was shown that the police failed to comply with their obligation to knock and announce their presence before barging in and that they lied about several aspects of the raid.

Without repeating the entirety of Balko’s excellent analysis, a particularly troubling aspect of the ruling is the nonchalant way in which the Fourth Circuit judges, even in dissent, treat the militarized raid over marijuana residue and dispense with any suggestion that such escalated violence is constitutionally questionable:

Let’s first start by noting one very important issue that is not in dispute—whether the massive amount of force the police brought to bear in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. As far as the federal courts are concerned, it was. As Judge Pamela Harris points out in her dissent, “The point here, to be clear, is not to take issue with the Officers’ decision to execute a search warrant based on marijuana traces by way of a military-style nighttime raid.”

Harris is correct. The courts long ago decided that dangerous, punishing SWAT-style raids to search for pot—even when there is no evidence of distribution—are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. A lawsuit arguing otherwise will be promptly tossed.

Balko then points out that such behavior is precisely what the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent:

Steep Drop in Colorado Marijuana Arrests

A new report from the Drug Policy Alliance details a steep decline in the number of marijuana arrests in Colorado and remarks on the beneficial effects.

The key points:

  • Since 2010, marijuana possession charges are down by more than 90%, marijuana cultivation charges are down by 96%, and marijuana distribution charges are down by 99%.
  • The number of marijuana possession charges in Colorado courts has decreased by more than 25,000 since 2010—from 30,428 in 2010 to just 1,922 in 2014.
  • According to raw data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System, drug-related incidents are down 23% since 2010, based on a 53% drop in marijuana-related incidents.
  • In 2010 the top five Colorado counties for marijuana possession cases were El Paso, Jefferson, Adams, Larimer, and Boulder.  Marijuana possession cases in those counties all dropped by at least 83% from 2010 to 2014.
  • Marijuana distribution charges for young men of color did not increase, to the relief of racial justice advocates wary of a “net-widening” effect following legalization. The black rate for distribution incidents dropped from 87 per 100,000 in 2012 to 25 per 100,000 in 2014.
  • Racial disparities for still-illegal and mostly petty charges persist for black people when compared to white people, primarily because of the specific increase of charges for public use combined with the disproportionate rates of police contact in communities of color. The marijuana arrest rate for black people in 2014 was 2.4 times higher than the arrest rates for white people, just as it was in 2010.
  • The report also reveals a decline in synthetic marijuana arrests, presumably because people are less likely to use synthetic marijuana when marijuana itself is no longer criminalized.

According to Art Way, Colorado state director of the Drug Policy Alliance:

It’s heartening to see that tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Coloradans have been spared the travesty of getting handcuffed or being charged for small amounts of marijuana. By focusing on public health rather than criminalization, Colorado is better positioned to address the potential harms of marijuana use, while diminishing many of the worst aspects of the war on drugs.

Young v. UPS : Bias Plaintiffs Win at the Supreme Court

As I’ve had occasion to note in this space, pundits regularly complain that the current Supreme Court is somehow throttling job-bias lawsuits out of some concern for employers’ rights. However, the Court’s recent rulings on employment discrimination law in fact tend toward the cautious and centrist, and the caseload of discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) remains near its all-time highs. (Thus the New York Times complained in 2013 that a Court decision four years previously had made it hopeless to file age-bias claims, omitting to mention that lawyers filed more such cases after the decision than before.)

Today’s decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, on the scope of pregnancy discrimination and accommodation law, will be hailed reflexively in some quarters on a which-side-are-you-on basis, since the pregnant employee won. Few non-lawyers are likely to stick around for its dry details, in which Justice Stephen Breyer laid out a balancing test mushy enough in its liberalism to win over Chief Justice Roberts and even Justice Alito. (Readers interested in such matters as McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting and the selection of similarly situated co-worker “comparators” should follow up at the specialty employment-law blogs.) The practical impact of the case is also somewhat limited by Congress’s having further liberalized pregnancy accommodation law in plaintiffs’ favor after the events being sued over. 

Chicago Police Department Needs Reform

It’s been a rough month for the Chicago Police Department (CPD). 

First came the revelations from Spencer Ackerman and The Guardian about a CPD warehouse at Homan Square that was, according to detainees, defense attorneys, and civil rights advocates, operating as a “black site” where detainees were held for hours and aggressively interrogated without ever being officially entered into the system or given access to their attorneys. While the police and others dispute this characterization, one complaint seems to be that the abuses at Homan Square could be found at any police facility in Chicago.  Not exactly a resounding defense of CPD practices.  Last week the commander of the Homan Square facility, Nicholas Roti, resigned.

This week, the ACLU of Illinois released a troubling report about the use of Stop-and-Frisk in Chicago.  Stop-and-Frisk is the controversial practice, made infamous by the NYPD which has been ordered to halt it, of stopping large numbers of (especially African American and Hispanic) men on the street without probable cause and frisking them for contraband.  The ACLU report concludes that the CPD’s use of this practice is even broader and more Constitutionally-suspect than the NYPD program.

Kudos to the New Mexico Legislature for Abolishing Civil Asset Forfeiture

Good news from out west.  A New Mexico bill, HB 560, to restrict civil asset forfeiture has cleared the legislature - receiving unanimous support in the State House and State Senate - and awaits the signature of Governor Susana Martinez to become law.

Among other things, the New Mexico bill requires a criminal conviction for forfeiture actions, bolsters the “innocent owner” defense by requiring that the owner know that his/her property was being used illegally, requires that all forfeiture proceeds be deposited into the general fund rather than into the seizing agencies, and limits the ability of state and local law enforcement agencies to circumvent state law by utilizing the federal equitable sharing program.

As noted numerous times by Cato and other civil liberties advocates like the Institute for Justice and the ACLU, civil asset forfeiture is a conceptually unjust practice that has no place in a society that cherishes due process and private property.  

That many state legislatures across the country are now undertaking efforts to rein in this government abuse is something worth cheering about.