Monday, June 19, 2006

From combined dispatches

The Supreme Court refused yesterday to block part of the six-month-old Medicare prescription-drug program, a defeat for states that claim they may get stuck with the bill.

The court also said it would expand its review of a federal law banning some abortion procedures by deciding a California case on whether the law was too vague and imposed a burden on women.

Justices declined without comment to temporarily stop part of the law that added a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled. States were contesting a requirement that they pay the federal government for some expenses.

The justices also said that the fight belonged in a lower court, not the Supreme Court.

The 2003 law went into effect Jan. 1. About 43 million people are eligible for the benefit, although some missed a May deadline to sign up and may face a penalty.

Texas, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri and New Jersey called on the justices to issue an injunction and to allow them to bring the appeal. The justices rejected both requests without explanation.

Ten other states also filed briefs with the court claiming the program threatens state independence: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Vermont.

State lawsuits against the federal government can be filed directly with the Supreme Court, or begin in lower courts. The Bush administration told the justices that this case belonged in a lower court, and that states should actually receive more money, not less, under the law.

“The states cannot establish that the [law] … will cause them any financial hardship at all,” Solicitor General Paul Clement wrote.

The contested part of the law involves a provision that requires states to pay the federal government part of the money they are expected to save because they no longer must pay for drugs for people enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid.

People who were covered previously by state Medicaid programs are part of the new program.

The review of the abortion procedures law in California could show whether the court’s two newest members, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both conservatives appointed by President Bush, are willing to restrict abortion rights.

The justices had in February agreed to rule on a Nebraska case on whether the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is unconstitutional because it lacks an exception to protect the health of a pregnant woman.

The California case involved additional issues on whether the law imposed an undue burden on a woman’s right to seek an abortion and whether it is unconstitutionally vague. A U.S. appeals court declared the law unconstitutional and upheld an injunction barring its enforcement.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a group opposed to abortion, said, “The Supreme Court took a significant step today that clearly puts the issue of partial-birth abortion front and center.”

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