Legal Briefs (April 2012)

Through the work of the Legal Defense Fund, NASW has joined two amicus briefs filed in the U.S. Supreme Court case Department of Health and Human Services v. the State of Florida, which challenges the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that was passed into law in 2010.

The first brief addresses the issue of the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. It notes that beginning in 2014, the minimum coverage provision of the law will require nonexempted individuals to maintain a minimum level of health insurance or pay a tax penalty.

NASW’s brief, filed by a large coalition of women’s rights groups led by the National Women’s Law Center, addresses whether Congress has the constitutional power to enact the minimum coverage stipulation.

According to the brief, a major purpose and concern of Congress in passing the ACA was improving women’s health and ameliorating the disadvantages and discrimination women have faced in obtaining health care and health insurance.

“By requiring insurers to provide coverage to all who seek it, regardless of health status, it remedies long-standing insurer practices of refusing to sell insurance to women with ‘pre-existing conditions’ such as pregnancy, a previous Caesarean section, or a history of having survived domestic abuse,” the brief states.

It notes that an individual responsibility provision, requiring individuals to obtain insurance, “has proven important for effective implementation of the requirement that insurance companies make insurance available to all who seek it and cover pre-existing conditions, and thus essential to advancing the ACA’s goals of removing barriers to women’s participation in the health insurance market.”

The brief argues that the act, like other federal laws, generally prohibits “opting out” because Congress’s legitimate goals are best served by full participation, given the aggregate economic and social impact of the regulated behavior.

The second amicus brief NASW joined in the same case was filed by the National Health Law Program and addresses the issue of the Medicaid expansion.

Beginning in January 2014, the ACA requires participating states to expand their Medicaid programs to include certain nondisabled, nonelderly individuals whose incomes are below 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($14,856 for an individual in the contiguous U.S. in 2012).

The brief argues that contrary to petitioner states’ assertions, the expansion does not represent “an extreme and unprecedented abuse of Congress’ spending power,” nor does it “revolutionize” Medicaid.

The brief states that while altered over its history to improve health access for poor people, Medicaid remains much the same since its inception.

“The Medicaid Act continues to provide states an entitlement to federal funding for administration and services provided through the Medicaid program,” the brief states. “Participation is not compulsory. To participate, states must adhere to minimum federal requirements with respect to eligibility, services, and program administration.

“Beyond the floor, states have considerable discretion in how they will implement the federal requirements and to decide whether to go beyond what the federal law requires.”

The Legal Defense Fund facilitated NASW’s participation in an amicus brief filed by the American Psychological Association in the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases that address the legality of imposing life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.

NASW opposes any legislation or prosecutorial discretion permitting children to be charged and punished under adult standards, according to the brief.

In Evan Miller v. the State of Florida, the brief notes that Miller was sentenced to a mandatory life imprisonment without parole for a homicide he committed when he was 14. According to Supreme Court records, Miller is one of 73 14-year-olds nationwide who are serving such sentences.

The case is being argued in tandem with Kuntrell Jackson v. Ray Hobbs, director of the Arkansas Department of Correction. Jackson has been sentenced to life imprisonment for a criminal offense he committed when he was 14.

The brief notes that research continues to support the theory that juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure, while at the same time they lack the freedom and autonomy that adults possess to escape such pressures.

Adolescent brains are “not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, planning ahead and risk avoidance,” according to the brief.

It notes that the Supreme Court’s previous decision on the legality of such sentences have upheld that juveniles’ profound differences from adults undermine the possible justifications for punishing a juvenile offender with a sentence that “guarantees he will die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”

The brief argues, “Condemning an immature, vulnerable, and not-yet-fully-formed adolescent to live every remaining day of his life in prison — whatever his crime — is thus a constitutionally disproportionate punishment.”

NASW and its Alabama Chapter filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a petition for certiorari in a case where a convicted capital defendant is seeking a hearing on his petition for post-conviction relief from a death sentence based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Social workers act as expert witnesses in the sentencing phase of capital cases, according to the brief, and NASW supports abolition of the death penalty.

In Jeffery Lynn Borden v. Kim T. Thomas, interim commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, the brief notes that Borden was convicted of capital murder in the shooting deaths of his estranged wife and her father and sentenced to death.

Borden exhibited signs of mental illness since childhood and he had been diagnosed with and unsuccessfully treated for serious mental illnesses for 12 years, the brief noted. At Borden’s sentencing, counsel failed to explain how Borden’s history of mental illness and treatments, together with his life history, brought him to the point at which the shootings occurred. Had this crucial information been provided, the majority of jurors may have used the information to choose life over death in their sentencing, the brief stated.

NASW’s amicus briefs are filed through the work of the Legal Defense Fund which is supported primarily by member contributions.