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Monday, October 3, 2011

Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Douglas v. Independent Living

Today the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Douglas v. Independent Living of Southern California, a case which could affect the ability of Americans to have their day in court.

In the Douglas case, a group of Medicaid beneficiaries and providers challenged California’s attempt to cut reimbursement rates in violation of federal law. The Supreme Court today heard arguments on whether these private plaintiffs can bring a suit against the state for violating federal law.

If the Court finds in favor of California, Medicaid recipients will have their benefits reduced and have a harder time getting care. It will also pave the way for states to gut other federally-funded public assistance programs. 

In today’s arguments, the justices appeared split on the issue of whether private actors could bring such lawsuits. Chief Justice Roberts seemed inclined towards California’s argument, noting that the court does not generally allow private actors to sue unless a law expressly says they may. Justice Breyer said he was troubled by giving federal judges too much authority to weigh in on Medicaid payments because it could lead to courts preventing federal agencies from “doing their business.” 

However, other justices seemed more inclined to side with the plaintiffs. Justice Ginsburg noted that there was no effective way to enforce the Medicaid Act without private plaintiffs. Justice Kagan censured California for putting the new rates in place before receiving federal approval in an attempt to do an “end run” around the regulatory process. 

Last week, AFJ released a report on the Douglas Case and its potential impact on everyday Americans. You can download a PDF of the report here.

Coverage of the oral argument is available from the AP and from the LA Times. A transcript is available from the Supreme Court's website.

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