Friday, June 21, 2013
Conditional spending for the cause of public health
The Supreme Court decided Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International yesterday, a lower-profile case about unconstitutional conditions placed on federal funding. My initial reaction is that the opinion can be read in at least two ways. On the surface, this decision reads like the long line of First Amendment unconstitutional conditions cases such as Rust v. Sullivan and Legal Services Corp. v. Velazquez. Chief Justice Roberts' majority opinion held that the "Leadership Act" could offer federal funding to eradicate HIV/AIDS throughout the world, and that funding can express discouragement of prostitution by refusing to allow the funds to be used for the promotion of prostitution, but the Court held that the conditions on the funds cannot go so far as to require the organizations using the federal funds to explicitly oppose prostitution. (Fund recipients had expressed the fear that taking an overt stance against prostitution would harm their public health efforts by scaring those in the sex trade away from their doors.) The majority's opinion is a non-controversial read of that line of cases and even attempts to make sense of the somewhat inconsistent application of the doctrine by describing the difference between "conditions that define the limits of the government spending program" and "conditions that seek to leverage funding to regulate speech outside of the contours of the program itself." I don't necessarily buy this distinction. After all, conditions by necessity define the contours of a program - unless they are nongermane, which seems to underly the Chief Justice's leveraging concept but was never explicitly stated. But, it is one way to describe the differing outcomes in this line of cases that is worth considering.
But then I come to a second possible take: this case reiterates the Roberts Court's willingness to rein in congressional exercises of the spending power. On the heels of NFIB v. Sebelius, the spending aspect of this case is notable, given that this is the second case in two years to express disapproval of conditions on federal spending. Unlike NFIB, which created a novel coercion doctrine without contours, this decision tread familiar ground in its conclusion that conditions on spending cannot violate First Amendment rights. However, even during oral arguments, there were shadows of the ACA controversy from last term. And, although NFIB was not cited in the opinion, both the majority and the dissent (authored by Justice Scalia) contained familiar language about leveraging, coercion, and offers that can't be refused. It is unclear why Justices Scalia and Thomas would uphold this condition on federal funding when they so readily and forcefully rejected the Medicaid expansion last year. The simplest answer is probably that these justices have long rejected the unconstitutional conditions doctrine. (Another possibility is that the dissenting justices agree with the policy of rejecting prostitution (see Justice Scalia's bizarre "free love" comparison) but disagreed with the policy of universal health coverage.)
While the spending power is still robust, I am not sanguine about the conversation the Court is trying to have with Congress about the Spending Clause. It will be interesting to see how the Court furthers this project in the same-sex marriage cases that are sure to be handed down next week. If the cases turn on the doctrine of federalism, then read in combination, the Roberts Court may be continuing its adventures in the Federalism Revolution, once thought done and gone, and now revived through the spending power.