States’ Rights At Center of Trilogy
of Cases Before Supreme Court
By Lisa Soronen, Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center
It is a rare Supreme Court term where the issue of federalism is raised in all of the most prominent cases. In the Affordable Care Act litigation, the Arizona immigration case and the Texas redistricting case, however, states’ rights are the central question with which the Court must contend.
What makes these three cases different from even the prominent federalism cases of the last few decades is that they all involve politically charged topics—health care, immigration and voting—and concern issues that directly impact the lives of your average American, health care in particular. As usual, the implications of the Court’s decisions in these cases may extend well beyond the specific facts litigated.
Affordable Care Act
The Court is considering four questions in the Affordable Care Act case—two of which address federalism head on.
First, they will decide whether the individual mandate—which requires almost all Americans by 2014 to obtain health insurance or pay a fine—violates the Commerce Clause. One of the reasons the 11th Circuit concluded the individual mandate is unconstitutional is that insurance and health care are traditional areas of state concern.
Second, the Affordable Care Act requires states to expand Medicaid coverage or lose all federal Medicaid funding, not just additional federal funding that will cover the cost of the expansion. The Court will decide whether the Medicaid expansion is permissible under the Spending Clause or fails the coercion test because states are essentially compelled to participate in Medicaid.
Whether the Court considers the requirement to buy health insurance interstate commerce or the Medicaid expansion coercive will impact both legal doctrines in contexts well beyond the individual mandate and Medicaid. The argument that Congress can regulate inactivity—not buying health insurance—is novel. Likewise, the Court has only twice ruled on the coercion in the Spending Clause context, making any ruling—much less a ruling regarding a program as big as Medicaid—significant.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether four provisions of Arizona’s immigration statute are pre-empted by federal law. Arizona argued in its certiorari petition that Senate Bill 1070 “authorizes cooperative law enforcement and imposes sanctions that consciously parallel federal law.” But the Ninth Circuit disagreed, concluding that all four provisions of Senate Bill 1070 are pre-empted by federal immigration law.
Regarding police being required to determine if a person is in the United States legally, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the federal Immigration and Naturalization Act allows state and local police to aid in immigration enforcement only under the supervision of the attorney general.
Regarding state criminalization of failing to carry immigration papers, the Ninth Circuit concluded this requirement is pre-empted because Congress did not provide for state participation in this section of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, though it did in other sections of the law.
Regarding Arizona criminalizing employment for undocumented immigrants, the Ninth Circuit noted that the INA only sanctions employers.
Regarding police officers being allowed to arrest a person who is likely subject to deportation, the Ninth Circuit concluded this section is pre-empted because “states do not have the inherent authority to enforce the civil provisions of federal immigration law.”
Other states have adopted state immigration laws similar to Arizona’s. These laws, too, may be pre-empted by federal law, depending on how the Court rules in this case.
The issue in the Texas redistricting case was whether and how much a federal district court must defer to a state legislature’s drawing of electoral maps when the federal district court creates interim electoral maps. Due to population growth, Texas gained four U.S. House of Representative seats requiring the Texas state legislature to redraw its electoral maps. The state legislature’s redistricting plan would likely allow Republicans to gain three of the four additional seats.
Per the Voting Rights Act, Texas’s redistricting plan must be precleared to make sure it wasn’t discriminatory on the basis of race or color. While preclearance of Texas’s plan was still being litigated in a D.C. federal district court, the candidate filing period for 2012 election was closing imminently. So the federal district court in San Antonio drew an interim redistricting map. The court’s interim map would likely give Democrats two of the new seats and, according to Texas, substantially changed all but nine of the 36 districts. Texas sued, claiming the federal district court should have deferred to the state legislature’s electoral map when drawing up an interim map.
The Supreme Court’s opinion in this case was favorable to the Texas legislature. The Court vacated the federal district court’s interim maps. It instructed the district court to “take guidance from the State’s recently enacted plan in drafting an interim plan. That plan reflects the State’s policy judgments on where to place new districts and how to shift existing ones in response to massive population growth.”
The Supreme Court has already issued an opinion in the Texas redistricting case. It will issue an opinion in the Affordable Care Act and Arizona immigration cases no later than the end of its term in June. Not all the cases from this term affecting state and local government have been as prominent, controversial or partisan as these three cases. The State and Local Legal Center has filed or will file amicus briefs in three other cases (highlighted below), all of which will likely have a greater impact on local government than state government.
Visit the State and Local Legal Center website at for more information about these cases and to read the center’s briefs.