News Law and Policy

Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Arizona Law Defunding Planned Parenthood

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A federal appeals court ruled the state's attempts to cut Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid funding were unlawful.

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday against Arizona’s attempts to disqualify Planned Parenthood from state Medicaid funds. The court held that an Arizona law banning the state from contracting with organizations that provide abortions violates federal law. The ruling upholds a permanent injunction blocking the law that had been entered by a lower court in February.

According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Arizona’s HB 2800 violates the federal Medicaid Act’s requirement that Medicaid recipients be free to choose their provider by “precluding Medicaid patients from using medical providers concededly qualified to perform family planning services to patients in Arizona generally, solely on the basis that those providers separately perform privately funded, legal abortions.” Attorneys for the State of Arizona had argued that the term “qualified” in the Medicaid Act was “too vague for the court to enforce” and therefore the state was free to come up with its own definition of qualified, including one that discriminated on the basis of providing access to abortion care.

The Ninth Circuit strongly disagreed. According to the court:

Arizona’s argument hinges on construing the statutory term “qualified” not according to its ordinary meaning, but instead as a Medicaid-specific term of art conferring upon the states plenary authority to withhold Medicaid funds on any policy grounds they prefer to pursue. Under Arizona’s reading, states can determine for any reason that a provider is not qualified for Medicaid purposes, even if the provider is otherwise legally qualified, through training and licensure, to provide the requisite medical services within the state.

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As the court noted, Arizona’s argument ignores not simply the clear meaning of the statute, but all common sense. The Ninth Circuit further explained that if it were to accept Arizona’s argument that the term “qualified” was in fact too “vague” for courts to interpret and that states were then free to make up any definition they choose, such an argument would entirely gut the “provider-choice” provision of the Medicaid Act.

Thursday’s ruling is the second in less than a month from the federal courts blocking state attempts to strip Planned Parenthood of Medicaid funds. In July, a federal judge in Indiana blocked a similar law. “Over and over again, courts have said that states cannot block people from getting preventive health care at Planned Parenthood, and the vast majority of the American public agrees,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement. “All women, no matter where they live, should be able to get quality, affordable health care from the health care provider they know and trust.”

“This is not only a victory for Planned Parenthood’s patients in Arizona, it is a victory for the nearly three million people who turn to Planned Parenthood health centers each year across the country,” Richards added.

A copy of the 32-page ruling can be found here.

Attorneys for the State of Arizona have the option of petitioning the Supreme Court to look at the issue, but it’s not at all clear if they will. In May, the Roberts Court declined a request to review a similar decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals permanently blocking Indiana’s attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”