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Dalton v. Little Rock Family Planning Services,  (1996)

In Depth


A group of Arkansas Medicaid providers and physicians who perform abortions brought a lawsuit in federal district court in 1996 challenging an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution (Amendment 68), § 1 of which prohibits the use of state funds to pay for any abortion "except to save the mother's life."  The defendants were the state officials responsible for administering the state Medicaid program. Arkansas, like all States, participates in the Medicaid program, which is a joint federal-state program to provide medical assistance to the indigent.  Both the federal government and the States contribute funds to the program.  The basis of the plaintiffs' lawsuit was that the funding prohibition conflicted with the Hyde Amendment which, at the time, allowed federal Medicaid funds to be used to pay for the abortions of indigent women not only in circumstances where the continuation of the pregnancy would endanger their lives, but also in circumstances where the pregnancy resulted from an act of rape or incest.  Plaintiffs sought a declaration that Amendment 68 violated the United States Constitution (because it was pre-empted by the Hyde Amendment) and an injunction barring its enforcement.

The district court agreed with the plaintiffs that the restriction on the use of state funds set forth in § 1 of Amendment 68 conflicted with the Hyde Amendment and could not be enforced.  The court, however, did not limit the scope of relief it provided to declaring § 1 unconstitutional and enjoining its enforcement.  Instead, it declared Amendment 68 unconstitutional in its entirety, concluding that the other provisions of the amendment (set forth below) have no operative significance apart from § 1.  The court of appeals affirmed.

The Constitutional Amendment Under Review

Amendment 68, which was approved by the people of Arkansas in 1977, provides as follows:

§ 1.  Public funding.  No public funds will be used to pay for any abortion, except to save the mother's life.

§ 2.  Public policy.   The policy of Arkansas is to protect the life of every unborn child from conception until birth, to the extent permitted by the Federal Constitution.

§ 3.  Effect of amendment.  This amendment will not affect contraceptives or require an appropriation of public funds.

The Court's Holding

Arkansas asked the Supreme Court to grant review as to two issues:  First, whether Arkansas and other States that participate in the federal Medicaid program must pay their share of those abortions for which reimbursement is available under the Hyde Amendment (life-of-the-mother, rape and incest).  Second, whether the district court erred in enjoining Amendment 68 in its entirety so long as Arkansas participates in the Medicaid program.  The Court denied review as to the first issue, but granted review as to the second and reversed the lower courts.

The Court's Reasoning

The Supreme Court noted that in pre-emption cases-cases in which state law conflicts with federal law-"state law is displaced only to the extent that it actually conflicts with federal law."  516 U.S. at 476 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).  Generally, the rule is that "a federal court should not extend its invalidation of a statute further than necessary to dispose of the case before it."  Brockett v. Spokane Arcades, Inc. 472 U.S. 491, 502 (1985).

The Court held that the district court's invalidation of Amendment 68 in its entirety was too broad.  First, even assuming (without deciding) that the district court's interpretation of the Hyde Amendment was correct, § 1 of Amendment 68 was pre-empted by federal law "only in cases where a Medicaid-eligible woman seeks to abort a pregnancy resulting from an act of rape or incest and the abortion is not necessary to save the woman's life."  Dalton, 516 U.S. at 476.  No other possible application of § 1 is pre-empted by current federal law.  "It is entirely possible," the Court noted, "that § 1 would have application to state programs that receive no federal funding." Id. Because Amendment 68 was challenged only to the extent that it conflicted with Title XIX of the Social Security Act (which created the Medicaid program), "it was improper to enjoin its application to funding that does not involve the Medicaid program."  Id. at 477.

Second, the district court's injunction was "overbroad in its temporal scope as well."  Dalton, 516 U.S. at 477.  "The Hyde Amendment is not permanent legislation."  Id.  Rather, it is an appropriations rider that is enacted for one fiscal year at a time.  In earlier fiscal years, the Hyde Amendment "limited federal funding to those abortions necessary to save the life of the mother."  Id. Because such a version of the Hyde Amendment might be enacted in the future, "it was improper for the District Court to enjoin enforcement of Amendment 68 'for so long as the State of Arkansas accepts federal funds pursuant to the Medicaid Act.'" Id. (quoting district court).

Finally, the Court held that the district court's invalidation of §§ 2 and 3 of Amendment 68 was improper.  The district court struck down Amendment 68 in its entirety on the ground that §§ 2 and 3 "have no function independent of" § 1.  Dalton, 516 U.S. at 478 (quoting district court).  "Even assuming that to be true," the Court stated, "once § 1 is left with the substantial application that the Supremacy Clause fully allows, §§ 2 and 3 subsist as well."  Id. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals insofar as it affirmed the scope of the district court's injunction, and remanded the case "for entry of an order enjoining the enforcement of Amendment 68 only to the extent that the amendment imposes obligations inconsistent with federal law."  Id.

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