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Roberts at 10: Consistently Closing the Courthouse Doors

January 20, 2015

The Supreme Court heard argument today in an important case on access to the courts: Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, Inc., which asks the Court whether the federal courts have authority to prevent states from enforcing state laws that conflict with federal law.  In this case, health care providers allege that a state law is preventing them from receiving adequate reimbursement from Medicaid.  

It’s difficult to know for sure what the Supreme Court will do, but unfortunately, it’s probably not difficult to predict what Chief Justice Roberts will do.  In a case raising the same issue in 2012, the Court ultimately decided not to reach that issue, but Roberts dissented, stating that the Court should have decided the issue and held that the plaintiffs could not sue.  If the Chief Justice manages to get four votes for that view this time around, the consequences could be significant not only for individuals seeking their day in court to redress unlawful state action, but also for those who rely on Medicaid to access the health care system.

The story of Armstrong actually reveals a great deal about the story of access to the courts (i.e., the ability to use the courts to seek redress for injury) in the Roberts Court more generally.  Access to the courts is one area in which the narrative of the Roberts Court is largely, albeit not entirely, negative, which means it’s not always easy to predict what the Court will do.  But although the record of the Roberts Court may be mixed on access to the courts, the record of Chief Justice Roberts is not.  In every significant case during his tenure as Chief Justice in which the Court has refused to limit access to the courts, he has dissented, often writing passionate dissents bemoaning the majority’s decision.  (Roberts called one decision “achingly wrong.”)  And when the Court has decided to limit access to the courts, Roberts has always been in the majority.  In casting these votes to limit access to the courts, Roberts has repeatedly disregarded not only the Framers’ vision of a robust judiciary that would serve to protect people from unlawful action by the other branches of government, but also Supreme Court precedent repeatedly affirming the importance of access to the courts.

Those Supreme Court precedents date back to the early days of our Nation.  Chief Justice Marshall, for example, once noted that access to the courts is critical to the “very essence of civil liberty.”  Indeed, access to the courts is critical to not only to the “very essence of civil liberty,” but also to the essence of all of our liberties and rights, which are undermined to the extent that injured parties can’t access the courts to vindicate them.  And, as we discuss in our longer “snapshot” on this topic, Chief Justice Roberts’s votes to make it more difficult for injured parties to access the courts span many distinct areas of law: decisions imposing constitutional limitations on who may sue through the doctrine of standing, decisions precluding parties from bringing their claims in court and forcing them into private arbitration procedures, decisions requiring plaintiffs to allege more facts at the outset of litigation to avoid having their case dismissed, and decisions making it more difficult to use the federal courts to challenge unconstitutional state action.  The Chief Justice has not always had four other Justices to join him in denying access to the courts, but very often he has.

Back in 2010, the Supreme Court was criticized for closing the main doors to its magnificent building.  Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg) released a memorandum bemoaning the change, noting that “[t]o many members of the public, this Court’s main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the Court itself.”  It may be that the literal closing of the Supreme Court’s front doors said more about the Roberts Court—and Chief Justice John Roberts—than was intended.  After all, whatever the legacy of the Roberts Court on access-to-courts issues ends up being (and the first decade doesn’t bode well), the legacy of Chief Justice Roberts seems clear: one of closing the courthouse doors as much as possible.