U.S. Supreme Court to Decide if the Poor Have Standing to Live or Die

Doctors, nurses and their patients are not happy. The 15-minute visits, medications taken unexpectedly off the market, the high price for health insurance driving families and retirees into bankruptcy, lack of medical care, and the decisions not to take medications because they are too  expensive, have come to a boiling point. The right-wing diatribe about  inadequate “socialized” health care rings hourly in the media while the  suffering of the American people is largely ignored. The situation is deplorable.

Predictably, while many Americans suffer the consequences of no medical care, it is the poor and disabled who suffer the most; yet, this past week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments that will make it legal for the state of California to cut fees to Medi-Cal providers, affecting 7.6 million poor people using the program.

One would expect that the public could turn to the court system for some kind of remedy. The old adage “I’ll have my day in court,” or “See you in court,” seems appropriate: Take the state of California and Governor Brown to court to stop them from wreaking havoc on people’s lives. Governor Brown and the Legislature approved a 10 percent, $620 million Medi-Cal cut to help balance the 2011-12 state budget. The outright injustice of denial of medical care for the poor has become mainstream and acceptable.

A day in court to argue that it is unconscionable to deny medical care to the poor? It would seem so American, so just, and so obviously right; but Americans should realize that getting a day in court requires a little quirk of the law, unbeknownst to many, that an American citizen must have “standing” ((“The legally protectible [sic] stake or interest that an individual has in a dispute that entitles him to bring the controversy before the court to obtain judicial relief…. Standing, sometimes referred to as standing to sue, is the name of the federal law doctrine that focuses on whether a prospective plaintiff can show that some personal legal interest has been invaded by the defendant…. It is not enough that a person is merely interested as a member of the general public in the resolution of the dispute. The person must have a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy…. The standing doctrine is derived from the U.S. Constitution’s Article III provision that federal courts have the power to hear “cases” arising under federal law and “controversies” involving certain types of parties. In the most fundamental application of  the philosophy of judicial restraint, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this language to forbid the rendering of advisory opinions …. Once a federal court determines that a real case or controversy exists, it must then ascertain whether the parties to the litigation have standing. The Supreme Court has developed an elaborate body of principles defining the nature and scope of standing. Basically, a plaintiff must have suffered some direct or substantial injury or be likely to suffer such an injury if a particular wrong is not redressed. A defendant must be the party responsible for perpetrating the alleged legal wrong.”)) to argue a case before the bench. Standing is one of the most transparent ploys that the Supreme Court uses to deny justice to the poor and empower the rich. Indeed, the court has a panoply of vehicles and obstacles to employ in preventing access to the courts. They are all designed to disenfranchise the poor.

We don’t usually think in terms of the legal obstacles that keep American citizens from having their day in court; yet the obstacles reach far beyond even the courts. Think of it as just another ploy in the armamentarium of the rich. The mean-spirited and spiteful republicans, for example, are trying to change the voting rights affecting mostly the elderly; i.e., to preclude them from voting for Democratic Party or progressive candidates. One only has to consider the republicans’ successful attempts to block a 96-year Afro-American Chattanooga woman from voting because she does not have an identity card. Limiting access to the courts is not so far from limiting people the access to their right to vote.

The Medi-Cal case, Douglas vs. Independent Living Center, 09-958, raises the limited issue as to whether the Supreme Court will allow doctors, nurses, hospitals, and patients to challenge the cut-off of  health care to indigent Californians. Although this a matter of life and death, the irony here is that the Supreme Court is not going to address the issue of whether Americans have the right to adequate medical care; but rather, only the procedural question of whether they can even argue in a courtroom that health care is a right and not a privilege.

Luke Hiken is an attorney who has engaged in the practice of criminal, military, immigration, and appellate law. Marti Hiken is the director of Progressive Avenues. She is the former associate director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and former chair of the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force. Read other articles by Marti Hiken and Luke Hiken, or visit Marti Hiken and Luke Hiken's website.