Pelosi And Other Democrats Sound Off On SCOTUS Case That Could Be ‘Disastrous’

Activists are ecstatic that the national muscle may help in their effort to get the case dropped.
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 22: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill September 22, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other high-profile Democrats filed an amicus brief in Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski Friday, the case barrelling towards oral arguments that could leave beneficiaries of major programs like Medicaid with little recourse should states neglect their care. 

The Democratic members include House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), many of whom serve on committees with authority over programs like Medicaid. 

“Disturbing this Court’s Section 1983 doctrine more broadly—by curtailing Congress’ ability to permit private enforcement of Spending Clause legislation and the programs established by that legislation—would have disastrous consequences,” they write. 

Section 1983 is the federal statute under which beneficiaries can sue in federal court if states violate their rights under spending programs like Medicaid.

They add that it would leave federal-state programs with “modest oversight” and would “egregiously undermine Congress’ purpose in enacting these statutes.”

“Neither federal nor state authorities have sufficient resources to provide complete oversight over the funding funneled into state programs,” the Democrats write. “Instead, their attention must often be dedicated to remedying systemic abuses, while preserving the option for aggrieved persons to seek individual remedies in federal court.”

The Democrats also frame the case as a potential impingement on the separation of powers, along with an overturning of 40 years of precedent. 

“The Court should recognize that Congress—not the Court—has responsibility for legislating the enforcement and oversight of Spending clause statutes,” they write, adding that it would create an enormous administrative burden if the Court were to nix 1983 actions.

The conservative majority, in recent cases, has often argued that Congress wasn’t clear enough in its legislation — an extension of the increasingly in-vogue conservative theories of the major questions and nondelegation doctrines, which require granular specificity from Congress when granting authority to agencies. 

Here, the Democrats are clear: Congress meant for Section 1983 lawsuits to be permitted, and if the Court closes that pathway to accountability, it will be actively working against what the legislature intended. 

“When Congress speaks, it does so with an understanding of the law. It also says what it means,” they write. “This Court should not alter its precedent based on analogies to contracts, blatantly ignoring congressional language and intent regarding who the ultimate beneficiaries are in Spending Clause Legislation.”

A coalition of local activists, without much money, attention, or so far, luck, have been pressuring board members of the Health & Hospital Corporation of Marion County (HHC) to withdraw their appeal of the case to the high court. They’ve also been lobbying the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council — a Democratic stronghold in deep red Indiana — to join in their efforts to push the board members. The council appointed a couple members of the HHC board, and has some general sway. 

Over the past few weeks, the effort has yielded little success. Activists struggled mightily to get responses from the HHC board members, and most of the councillors seemed disinclined to engage with the case in any public way.  

But some cracks started appearing in the stone wall Thursday night, at a Municipal Corporations Committee hearing. HHC CEO Paul Babcock, and other assorted HHC officials, attended to present the corporation’s budget. A handful of protesters sat in the crowd, holding signs reading “pull the petition” and “save our civil rights.” 

Councillor Frank Mascari was the first to bring up the petition, which he described as “brewing out there” 

“Let’s say Health and Hospital wins this suit, how does this affect patients in all nursing homes?” he asked. 

Babcock reeled off a list of alternative remedies in the case of an HHC victory, including the ability to sue under state medical malpractice laws, suing in state court and filing a complaint with the state Department of Health. He also pointed out that the federal government has some recourse, including pulling funding from a facility. 

“So you don’t feel they’re gonna lose their rights?” asked Mascari. 

“I do not believe rights will be lost,” Babcock replied. 

His response didn’t prove satisfactory for some of the other council members.

Councillor Ethan Evans approached the microphone during the public question and answer session to share that he’d had constituents experience great difficulty in their attempts to file medical malpractice suits. 

“They have been still fighting with the state with multiple lawyers, going all way to the ACLU with [Indiana Legal Services], and every single one has told them they appreciate the concern that their legal case has gotten, that they have what in any other state would be a great case to go to court with, but the state of Indiana’s laws, in their eyes, would be very biased in favor of the hospitals for medical malpractice,” he said.  

“So I would ask to reconsider that angle for how, if HHC were to win, that would be considered another angle for people to pursue for lawsuits,” he added. 

His comments earned him applause from the small group of protesters. 

Councillor Ali Brown, who sits on the committee running the hearing, chimed in with a statement she read to Babcock. 

“I’m very concerned about the lawsuit — as the only member of this committee who has had their rights stripped away by the SCOTUS, I am very concerned about them overreaching and doing things that are not okay,” she said, her words interrupted by applause. “I know that in theory, it should be a won case but I don’t trust those people up there, so I’m very concerned.” 

“Particularly as a mom of a child with disabilities, this really scares me,” she concluded. 

Read the Democrats’ brief here:

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