Child Health

What the Supreme Court Means for Children

September 23, 2020 | National

As speculation about the future of the Supreme Court grows, it’s important to reflect on the impact the Court has and can have on children in this country. Throughout history, decisions rendered by the Court have shaped the rights and treatment of children in both positive and negative ways and will continue to do so.  In the coming year alone, the Court will hear  several cases impacting the health, safety, and well-being of children.

Decisions from the Supreme Court, often decided by narrow margins, have had profound impacts on children. In 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, ensuring greater access to opportunity for children of color who had been forced into poorly funded, unequal schools. Nineteen years later, in a close 5-4 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Court held that children do not have a right to education and that discriminating against poor children by sending them to underfunded schools does not violate the constitution. The court has protected the safety of children by unanimously ruling in New York v. Ferber that the First Amendment does not protect child pornography, but it has also endangered children, ruling in a narrow 5-4 decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart that Congress could not pass laws to restrict child labor.

More recently, narrow 5-4 decisions have protected the health of children by upholding the Affordable Care Act in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius and protected the 700,000 DREAMers from deportation by upholding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. They have also made children more vulnerable to gun violence by preventing jurisdictions from passing laws banning handguns in District of Columbia v. Heller, which Justice Stevens called “unquestionably the most clearly incorrect decision that the Supreme Court announced during [his] tenure on the bench” and which he connected directly to the Sandy Hook massacre. 

In the coming months and years, the Supreme Court will hear a number of cases that could have potentially catastrophic impacts on the health, safety, and well-being of children, and which are expected to be decided on extremely close margins. Once again, the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is in the hands of the Court, this time in California v. Texas. If the Court decides not to uphold the ACA, millions of children could lose health coverage entirely or else be charged substantially higher amounts for coverage that does not meet their pediatric-specific needs. Children aging out of the foster care system would stand to lose the coverage that they can receive until age 26, and critical mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment for children and their parents could be lost, placing more children at risk of entering the child welfare system. Further, if the Court does not uphold the ACA, millions of children could lose their access to preventative services like immunizations and could be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions or because they face dangerous lifetime limits on care.

The Court is also poised to hear Fulton v. City of Philadelphia and decide whether governments can legally uphold non-discrimination policies that protect children in the child welfare system. The case centers on a child welfare agency that violated the city’s ban on discrimination by refusing to license same-sex couples to be foster parents. The agency, Catholic Social Services, sued after the city refused to refer more children to them, alleging that the ban on taxpayer-funded discrimination violated the organization’s freedom of religion. Should the Court rule in favor of Catholic Social Services, it could prove disastrous for children in foster care, limiting the pool of adults able to serve as foster and adoptive parents, decreasing the diversity of potential homes for children, and sending the signal to LGBTQ youth, who are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system, that they are not capable of creating loving families. Depending on how broadly the Court rules, this could undermine the ability of the government to enforce non-discrimination policies in any government-funded services that are contracted to outside organizations, including allowing discrimination against children and families in foster care, Head Start, housing support, and nutrition programs.   

Also in front of the Supreme Court in the coming year is Jones v. Mississippi, which will determine how easy it is for courts to impose sentences of life without parole on children. A ruling in favor of Brett Jones would ensure that sentencing children to die in prison is extremely rare and only occurs in cases where children are found to be “permanently incorrigible.” Such a ruling would help to diminish the impacts of racial bias in the sentencing of children. However, should the Court rule in favor of the state of Mississippi, it will mean that, contrary to decades of child development research, more children, especially Black and Brown children, are sentenced to die in prison, despite their ability to be rehabilitated.  

The Supreme Court will continue to be one of the most powerful forces shaping the lives of children and the world we are leaving for them. In a time of growing polarization, we continue to see more cases decided on close margins, giving a single Justice the power to profoundly impact the health, safety, and well-being of millions of children for generations to come. Confirming a new Justice is one of the most consequential actions that a Senator can take and as with any vote they take, CDF believes it is  imperative they do so with the interests of children in mind.