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SW and the Supreme Court Decisions
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In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued substantive decisions in four cases that NASW applauded due to the significance of the rulings in the advancement of NASW supported public policies and social justice. This Legal Issue of the Month article reviews the cases and the Court’s decisions from a social work perspective and from the NASW policy statements that support each case.

 

Social Workers and the Recent Decisions of the Supreme Court

By Elizabeth M. Felton, JD, LICSW, Associate Counsel
and Carolyn I. Polowy, JD, General Counsel
© June 2015. National Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.

 

In June 2015, the U. S. Supreme Court issued substantive decisions in four cases that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) applauded due to the rulings’ significance to the advancement of public policies and social justice.  These landmark decisions by the Court will likely have a deep impact on several aspects of the lives of millions of Americans. This Legal Issue of the Month will review the cases and the Court’s decisions from a social workers’ perspective and the NASW policy statements that support each case.  

King v. Burwell (576 U.S. 14-114)

In King v. Burwell, the U.S. Supreme Court made a monumental decision on a challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA)[1].  In a 6-3 ruling, the Court dismissed the contention that providing subsidies to low income individuals to purchase health care through the ACA was improper due to the lack of specific authorization in the wording of the law. As a result of this decision, the Supreme Court has upheld one of the key provisions of the ACA permitting it to remain a viable program for access to health care coverage in the U.S.  

In 2010, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance, expand the eligibility for Medicaid, decrease the cost of health care, and reduce the number of uninsured by providing for the establishment of “marketplaces” (also known as “exchanges”) that offer qualified health plans and administer premium subsidies to make health care coverage affordable. The law gives states the option to establish their own marketplaces through which people could purchase health care coverage. If states did not elect to establish their own marketplace, the federal government would establish one for them as a default so that marketplaces are available in each state.

The ACA also required people to obtain the minimum level of health coverage or pay a tax penalty unless they fell within an exemption for low-income individuals. To limit the number of people who were exempt from the tax, the ACA provided tax credits to help low and middle income individuals afford their health insurance premiums in states that did not set up their own health insurance marketplace. In implementing the ACA, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) created a regulation that made the tax credits available to those enrolled in both state and federally-run marketplaces although the specific language of the ACA only referred to marketplaces established by the state.[2]

The petitioners in King v. Burwell asserted that Congress only intended for residents of state-based marketplaces to receive premium tax credits, not those who use federally-facilitated marketplaces. They argued that the IRS regulation that allows tax credits for those enrolled in plans through federally-run marketplaces was contrary to the language of the ACA, in that, it was not one “established by the State,” and, therefore, the IRS exceeded the authority delegated to it by Congress to make rules implementing the ACA. 

The respondents in King v. Burwell were federal agencies responsible for implementing the ACA and they wanted the Court to uphold the IRS’s regulation that allows the availability of subsidies in states with a federally-run marketplace. The federal government argued that the IRS rule is consistent with the language of the ACA because a marketplace “established by the State” also means one established by Health and Human Service (HHS) standing in as a surrogate for the state. The government also argued that from reading the statute in its entirety, it is clear that Congress intended subsidies to be available to people in all states, regardless of whether the state has established its own marketplace.[3]

The Court’s decision in King v. Burwell was a major victory for those who advocate for access to health care for all Americans. If the Court ruled otherwise, tax credits from residents in all of the states with federally facilitated marketplaces would have been taken away. It was estimated that 8 million people would not have been able to afford to pay their monthly health insurance premiums and would likely become uninsured because they could not afford the unsubsidized cost. NASW supports efforts to increase health care coverage to uninsured and underinsured, as well as efforts to eliminate racial, ethnic and economic disparities in health services access, provision and outcomes.[4] NASW joins other healthcare advocates across the nation in a collective sigh of relief that the Supreme Court has upheld one of the key provisions of the ACA permitting it to remain a viable program for access to health care coverage in the U.S.

Obergefell, et al, v. Hodges, et al, (576 U.S. 14-556)

In a 5-4 vote in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the states to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize lawfully licensed out-of-state marriages. The ruling will benefit thousands of same-sex couples living in states currently denying equal access to marriage for same-sex couples.

Same-sex couples in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee sued their respective state agencies to challenge the constitutionality of those states’ bans on same-sex marriages or refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages in other jurisdictions. They argued that those state statutes violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[5] The ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges was decided two years to the day of the decision in U.S. v Windsor, the landmark civil rights case that ruled section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. DOMA, enacted in 1996, barred same sex couples from being recognized as spouses for purposes of federal laws.

The Court’s decision offers same-sex couples and their families the same recognition and benefits as married heterosexual couples. NASW has long been a supporter of same-sex marriage and advocated for expanded federal law that legalized and recognized marriage of same-sex couples.[6] NASW joined the American Psychological Association and other organizations in the Obergefell v. Hodges amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court urging the justices to make the historic decision that was issued in this case. In that brief, NASW and the other groups argued that same-sex attraction is a normal part of human sexuality and the same-sex couples form committed relationships and are just as capable of raising children. The brief also argued that conferring marriage rights on same-sex couples also offers them social, psychological and health benefits. For more information about the amicus brief, go to http://www.socialworkers.org/dnn/ldfbriefs/Home.aspx?back=yes#O

Ohio v. Clark (576 U.S. 13-1352)

In Ohio v. Clark, the Court ruled in a 9-0 decision that a child’s statement to his teacher, a mandated reported, was admissible in trial and did not violate the Confrontation Clause even though the child did not testify. The Confrontation Clause is the defendant’s right to confront and cross examine his accuser.[7]  The purpose of the Confrontation Clause is to prevent government abuses and it does not apply to statements made to private parties without police involvement.

In this case, a three year old child made statements to a pre-school teacher about his physical injuries implicating the defendant as his abuser. The child was considered incompetent to testify at trial due to his young age because in Ohio, children under age 10 generally do not testify. Although the child did not testify at trial, the teacher testified that the child identified the defendant as the abuser. The defendant argued that admitting the child’s earlier statement to the teacher during the trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to cross examine the child under the Confrontation Clause since the child did not testify.

The defendant argued that the child’s statement to the teacher was inadmissible and had a testimonial purpose similar to a police interrogation since the teacher, as a mandated reporter, was acting like a law enforcement agent gathering evidence for the state. The state argued that the child’s statement to the teacher was non-testimonial, admissible and it did not violate the Confrontation Clause since the teacher was primarily concerned with protecting the child and preventing further abuse.[8]

The trial court convicted the defendant and sentenced him to 28 years in prison. The mid level appellate court reversed the conviction and the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision to exclude the child’s statement to the mandated reporter as a violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right under the Confrontation Clause. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision and upheld the admission of a child’s comments to a mandated reporter.

The Court’s decision is a victory for teachers, social workers, child welfare advocates, and advocates for victims of abuse in that it protects children and improves the state’s ability to prosecute and convict individuals who abuse children since the reliable statements of abused children can be used at trial. If the Court ruled otherwise, the prosecution of child abuse cases and the protection of at risk and abused children would have been more difficult.  This decision recognizes teachers as protectors of children and that the primary purpose of the child abuse reporting statute is to protect abused and neglected children. NASW supports the creation and enforcement of laws that protect child witnesses and efforts that highlight the significance of child abuse and neglect issues and the related legal requirements of reporting systems.[9]

Texas v. Inclusion Communities Project  (576 U.S.13-1371)

Texas v. The Inclusive Communities Project is a housing discrimination case where the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits housing decisions that have a disparate impact regardless of intent. The Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the FHA recognizes disparate impact claims and the law allows plaintiffs to challenge government or private policies that have a discriminatory effect, without having to show evidence of intentional discrimination. Other evidence can be used to show that practices have discriminatory effects without proving that they are the result of discriminatory intentions.

Title VIII of the Civil Right Act of 1968, referred to as the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, family status, national origin, or disability.[10]  Disparate impact is a legal doctrine under the Fair Housing Act which states that a policy may be considered discriminatory if it has a disproportionate “adverse impact” against any group based on race, national origin, color, religion, sex, familial status, or disability when there is no legitimate, non-discriminatory business need for the policy. Disparate impact focuses on the effects or consequences of an action rather than the intent behind it.  In a disparate impact case, a person can challenge practices that have a “disproportionately adverse effect” on those protected by the Fair Housing Act and are “otherwise unjustified by a legitimate rationale.” The disparate impact provision under the FHA is a critical legal protection against housing discrimination and has played a key role in promoting racial equality in housing and fighting discrimination.[11]

In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Community Project, Inc., the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a Texas non-profit housing organization that favors racially integrated housing, claimed that a state agency violated the FHA by allocating a disproportionate number of federal low-income housing tax credits in predominantly black inner-city areas, rather than in predominately white suburban neighborhoods. They argued that approach, even if was not designed to segregate the races, had that effect and was therefore the “functional equivalent” of intentional racial segregation and thus violated the Fair Housing Act. The group sued under the fair-housing law, which makes it illegal to refuse to sell, rent “or otherwise make unavailable” housing to anyone because of race, sex or other protected categories.

The state agency countered that the law did not authorize “disparate impact” lawsuits. They claimed that they were just trying to comply with federal mandates governing the use of tax credits, and that, since it was not intentionally discriminating, it was not running afoul of the FHA. The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court placed the Fair Housing Act in the context of other civil rights laws that the court has found to prohibit racially disparate impacts, even if a challenged policy appears race-neutral. The Court said, “These unlawful practices include zoning laws and other housing restrictions that function unfairly to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods without any sufficient justification.” With this statement, the Court recognizes that housing discrimination continues to occur in America and there is a continued need for protection under the Fair Housing Act.  The Court acknowledged “the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the Nation toward a more integrated society.”[12] The Court recognized that disparate impact claims play an important role in uncovering discriminatory intent and unconscious biases that may block the purpose of the goals of the FHA and disparate impact liability was consistent with its purpose of ending segregated housing patterns and moving our nation towards a more integrated society.

NASW remains a staunch advocate for preserving legal protections against all forms of discrimination[13] and agreed with the Court’s statement that “much progress remains to be made in our Nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation.”

Conclusion

The recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 are far reaching and have significantly contributed to the advancement of public policies and social justice by increasing access to affordable health care insurance for millions of Americans, clearing the way for same sex couples to marry in all 50 states, protecting children from abuse, and preserving a valuable tool to eliminate housing discrimination. These landmark rulings will be challenged in the future so advocacy efforts at the local and national level must be continued to preserve and advance the gains that have been achieved with these favorable outcomes.

References

An Alliance for Health Reform Toolkit, “To Subsidize of Not to Subsidize: King v. Burwell,” June 2015 Available online at:  www.allhealth.org

 

Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Pub.L.104-199 (1996)

 

Musumeci, MaryBeth, “Are Premium Subsidies Available in States with a Federally-run Marketplace? A Guide to the Supreme Court Argument in King v. Burwell,” Kaiser Family Foundation, February 25, 2015  Available online at: http://kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/are-premium-subsidies-available-in-states-with-a-federally-run-marketplace-a-guide-to-the-supreme-court-argument-in-king-v-burwell/

 

King v. Burwell (576 U.S. 14-114) (2015)

 

Obergefell, et al v. Hodges, et al (576 U.S. 14-556) (2015)

Ohio v. Clark (576 U.S. 13-1352) (2015)

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Pub.L. 111-148 (2010)

Texas v. Inclusion Communities Project (576 U.S.13-1371) (2015)

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act), Pub.L. 90-284 (1968)

U.S. Constitution Sixth Amendment – Confrontation Clause 

U.S. v. Windsor (570 U.S. 12-307) (2013)

National Fair Housing Alliance – Disparate Impact

http://www.nationalfairhousing.org/PublicPolicy/DisparateImpact/tabid/4264/Default.aspx

 

NASW Policy Statement: Health Care, in Social Work Speaks 146, 149 (10th ed. 2015)

 

NASW Policy Statement: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues, in Social Work Speaks 198, 203  (10th ed. 2015).

 

NASW Policy Statement: Child Abuse and Neglect, in Social Work Speaks 32, 36 (10th ed. 2015)

 

NASW Policy Statement: Racism, in Social Work Speaks 254, 258 (10th ed. 2015)

 




[1] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Pub.L. 111-148 (2010)

[2] Musumeci, MaryBeth, “Are Premium Subsidies Available in States with a Federally-run Marketplace? A Guide to the Supreme Court Argument in King v. Burwell,” Kaiser Family Foundation, February 25, 2015 

[3] King v. Burwell (576 U.S. 14-114) (2015)

[4] NASW Policy Statement: Health Care, in Social Work Speaks 146, 149 (10th ed. 2015)

 

[5] Obergefell et al v. Hodges et al (576 U.S. 14-556) (2015)

[6] NASW Policy Statement: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues, in Social Work Speaks 198, 203  (10th ed. 2015).

[7] U.S. Constitution Sixth Amendment – Confrontation Clause 

 

[8] Ohio v. Clark (576 U.S. 13-1352) (2015)

[9] NASW Policy Statement: Child Abuse and Neglect, in Social Work Speaks 32, 36 (10th ed. 2015)

[10] Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act) Pub.L. 90-284 (1968)

 

[11] National Fair Housing Alliance – Disparate Impact

[12] Texas v. Inclusion Communities Project (576 U.S.13-1371) (2015)

 

[13] NASW Policy Statement: Racism, in Social Work Speaks 254, 258 (10th ed. 2015)


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