Did John Roberts Accidentally Save Planned Parenthood?

by Laura Bassett and Ryan Grim/The Huffington Post

By rewriting the rules that govern which strings the federal government can attach to its spending on the state level, Chief Justice John Roberts may have inadvertently prevented a future Tea Party-dominated Congress from executing one of its top priorities, defunding Planned Parenthood.

At the same time, it raises the question of whether the federal government can withhold Medicaid money if a state decides on its own to defund Planned Parenthood. Before Roberts’ ruling, no legal scholar would have questioned whether the federal government had the authority to spend its own money or tie any strings it deemed appropriate to it. But after the ruling, it’s an open question that will likely be decided in court, legal experts told The Huffington Post.

“I perceive NFIB v. Sebelius as throwing the courthouse doors open to coercion claims,” said Nicole Huberfeld, a Kentucky University law professor. “Because the holding is so dependent on the somewhat unusual facts of Medicaid, and because the court set forth no theory of coercion, I think we will see a lot of challenges in an effort to discover the contours of the coercion doctrine.”

The issue raised by Roberts’ opinion is whether the federal government can coerce a state into using its federal grant money in a particular way by threatening to withhold that money. For instance, if Congress voted to defund Planned Parenthood through the Title X federal family planning program, but New York wanted to continue sending its federal Title X dollars to Planned Parenthood clinics in the state, could the government withhold all Title X money from New York?

Andrew Koppelman, a Northwestern University law professor who writes for Salon, said lower courts are likely to see such questions before them. “It depends on whether the court can fairly conclude that the amount of money is so large that the state has no choice but to acquiesce in the federal government’s terms,” he said. “There is language in both Roberts and the four dissenters’ opinions to suggest that the federal program has to be really huge, as Medicaid is, in order for the offer to be coercive. But we’ll have to see what lower courts do with this precedent. One can say, at a minimum, that challenges to conditional funding that would have been frivolous a week and a half ago now must be taken seriously.”

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